REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- The U.S.-born drug trafficking suspect known as "La Barbie" has gone on a hunger strike at the high-security prison in Mexico where he awaits extradition to the United States because authorities are denying him conjugal visits over discrepancies in his partner's documents, authorities say.
Edgar Valdez Villarreal, a 38-year-old Texas native known as "La Barbie" for his fair looks, has not eaten prison-prepared food since Oct. 2, authorities said.
He is still receiving food and cleaning products that inmates are able to buy inside the Altiplano prison in the central state of Mexico, the federal public safety ministry said in a statement released Thursday (link in Spanish).
The statement comes after a brother of the suspected drug-trafficker told the San Antonio Express-News that Valdez stopped eating on Sept. 26 over conditions at Altiplano. Abel Valdez said his brother went on a hunger strike out of fear that prison authorities are setting him up to be killed by other inmates by spreading a rumor that he is a snitch.
Veronica Peñuñuri, spokeswoman for the federal public safety ministry, said the allegations had no merit. "La Barbie" chose to stop eating the prison's cafeteria food after his petition for a conjugal visit with an unnamed woman was tripped up due to discrepancies in copies of her birth certificate, Peñuñuri told The Times.
The woman's documents showed locations of birth in three places: Acapulco, in Guerrero state, Nuevo Laredo in Tamaulipas, and Laredo, Texas, where "La Barbie" was born.
"This is done with all inmates," Peñuñuri said. "All that is happening is that we are determining where she was born so that she can enter."
Valdez's health is not in danger and he is being monitored by prison doctors, she added.
"La Barbie," accused of running an ultra-violent enforcement arm of the Beltran-Leyva cartel, was arrested in August 2010.
He sparked intrigue among drug-war observers for sporting a sly grin when Mexican authorities presented him in a customary media event. One theory that circulated at the time suggested that Valdez, as a U.S. citizen, was expecting to become a protected witness for U.S. authorities in exchange for a lighter sentence if convicted.
He faces multiple drug trafficking charges in Texas and Louisiana.
More than a year later, Valdez has not been extradited and remains behind bars in Mexico. His brother told the San Antonio paper this week that "La Barbie" is being set up by prison authorities who are spreading rumors about Valdez to other inmates.
"They're using tactics to keep my brother's mouth shut because he knows too much," Abel Valdez told the Express-News.
The suspected trafficker's lawyers also allege that they're not given access to their client.
"La Barbie" -- a former high school football player in Laredo -- also became an unexpected fashion icon after he was presented to the media wearing the clothes he was wearing when captured: a pine-green Ralph Lauren polo shirt with "London" on the front.
These shirts -- or more precisely, large quantities of knock-off versions -- have since become hot-selling items in the notorious Tepito market of downtown Mexico City and other dense streets where vendors hawk pirated goods, raising concern among Mexican officials about the rise of "narco-fashion" (link in Spanish).
-- Daniel Hernandez
Photo: Edgar "La Barbie" Valdez Villarreal is presented to the media by Mexican authorities in August 2010. Credit: EFE