TOPICS > Politics

‘Barbie’ Arrest Could Yield Drug War Intel for Mexican Officials

August 31, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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About 30,000 people have been killed since 2006 in Mexico's violent drug wars. On Monday, one of the country's biggest drug traffickers was arrested in Mexico City. NPR's Jason Beaubien has more.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on the arrest, we’re joined now by National Public Radio’s Jason Beaubien in Mexico City. Jason, thank you for talking with us. First of all, they caught him alive. How significant is that?

JASON BEAUBIEN, National Public Radio: It is very significant, because, obviously, he can be important in terms of other investigations, in terms of digging in to the — the workings of these cartels. Yes, it’s very important that — that they caught him alive. And the hope is that they will be able to get more information about the functioning of — of other cells, other parts of the Beltran Leyva organization that had splintered after Arturo was — was — was gunned down by the Mexican marines in December of 2009.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How big a victory is this for the Mexican government?

JASON BEAUBIEN: This is really huge in terms of the timing. For President Calderon, he really needed a good-news story at the moment. Last week, you had the worst massacre in this entire drug war, with 72 migrants killed by the Zetas, one of the drug cartels that operates primarily just below Laredo and Brownsville, Texas. They actually operate all over Mexico, but that’s sort of their home base.

They’re accused of gunning down 72 migrants. That’s obviously — obviously the worst massacre that has occurred in what is an incredibly bloody drug war here. And just the same day that Valdez was captured, there was a 12-hour gun battle that went on just below Tamaulipas, in Veracruz, in which the army was trying to catch these gunmen.

This went on almost all day. There’s a sense in Mexico that things have really gotten out of control in terms of security. When you get out and talk to people, it’s the main concern that people have. So, this capture of Valdez, for Calderon, is a chance to say, look, we are making progress. We’re bringing down some of these top leaders. And have faith in us. And even though it’s getting more and more violent, if we push forward, we can succeed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, Valdez has an interesting background. He was born in Laredo, Texas. He played high school football. Tell us more about that.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Yes. By all accounts, he grew up in a very middle-class environment in Laredo, Texas, and went on to become a small-time marijuana dealer on the northern side of the border, in the U.S., in Texas. Then he got in with the Mexican cartels and really took off from there.

His ability to move between the two worlds was quite effective. Officials here say that, when he was captured yesterday, he was moving a ton of cocaine a month into the United States. He moved very rapidly through the ranks. Originally, he was with the Sinaloan cartel, where the Beltran Leyvas were working with the Sinaloan cartel at that point. Then, when the Beltran Leyvas broke away, he came with them, was one of their leaders of a group of hitmen that they had called Los Negros. He’s also known as being one of the most brutal men in entire this drug war.

In a drug war in which tens of thousands of people have been killed, he’s accused of orchestrating the murders of hundreds of people through this group, the Los Negros, that worked for the Beltran Leyvas. Eventually, when Arturo was gunned down, he split off and was trying to work on his own and run his own cartel.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, in fact, trying to set up his own drug operation. And I was reading today that there were a number of people who were happy to turn in information about him.

JASON BEAUBIEN: When he broke away from the Beltran Leyvas, and the Beltran Leyvas were sort of falling apart, it became incredibly bloody in the areas where they were working, particularly in Cuernavaca, which is just below Mexico City. This is known as a sort of vacation resort for a lot of people from Mexico, from Mexico City.

And it’s a place that has a reputation for being very peaceful. Well, La Barbie, Valdez, turned this into basically a war zone. He was fighting for control of these roots that the Beltran Leyvas had had. They were stringing up bodies off of highway overpasses and decapitating their enemies.

It really did become incredibly violent. And there’s even a suggestion that maybe he was involved in turning in Arturo and giving over information to the Mexican navy, so that they were actually able to take down Arturo Beltran Leyva, at this point his boss.

So, it does appear that there’s a lot of infighting going on. And this is part of what — what President Calderon is trying to do. He’s trying to disrupt the structures of these cartels, knock them off at the top, and break them into smaller groups that are easier for the government to contain and to control.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Jason, finally, quickly, we understand they’re now planning to — to have him tried in the U.S. on — and what would the charges be, and why?

JASON BEAUBIEN: Well, he was facing charges in the U.S. for moving tons of cocaine into the Eastern Seaboard between 2004 and 2006. So, there was a standing indictment for him in the United States for drug smuggling. So, that would probably be the main charge, obviously, that he would face. And there is a desire here to move him out of Mexico, so that he’s not inside the prison system, not able to keep trying to — to gain power inside these — these cartels.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jason Beaubien, we thank you for your reporting, joining us from Mexico City.

JASON BEAUBIEN: You’re welcome.