MEXICO CITY -- The government of President Felipe Calderon has made the elimination of top capo suspects from a most-wanted list of 37 men the barometer for success in its fight against organized crime.
With the slaying of Zeta cartel leader Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano earlier this month, that number has now been reduced by 25, or about two-thirds of the total, as identified on a list published by the attorney general's office in March 2009 (link in Spanish).
But have the captures or killings of cartel leaders helped stem the violence in Mexico or reduce the flow of drugs to the United States? Not significantly, L.A. Times correspondents in Mexico have concluded in a variety of articles since December 2006, when the government's military-led assault on the cartels began. The death or capture of a cartel leader, analysts repeatedly argue, usually sparks infighting for succession among lieutenants and thus more bloodshed.
The most-wanted man in Mexico, meanwhile, Sinaloa cartel alliance chief Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, remains conspicuously at large. But weeks away from the end of Calderon's term, Mexico's security forces have plenty of "gets" to point to in the country's efforts against criminal gangs.
Here's a partial list of the major cartel chiefs who have been taken down so far.
- The son of a top Sinaloa alliance capo, Vicente Zambada Niebla, alias "El Vincentillo," is arrested in March during an operation in a posh section of Mexico City. Extradited to the United States in early 2010 to face drug conspiracy charges in U.S. District Court in Chicago, Zambada has been complaining of the conditions of his imprisonment.
- In April, Juarez cartel leader Vicente Carrillo Leyva, son of Juarez's Amado Carrillo Fuentes (the "Lord of the Skies"), is caught by authorities, also in a well-to-do section of the capital.
- In a dismantling blow to the criminal organization he co-founded, Arturo Beltran Leyva is killed in a shootout with Mexican marines in December in the city of Cuernavaca. His body was photographed after his death covered by peso and dollar bills, in a damaging "trophy" gag reportedly staged by security forces. Later, in a horrific act of revenge, assailants ambushed and killed members of the family of a marine who died in the shootout hours after a memorial for the serviceman.
Captured or killed in 2010
- An enforcer for the Tijuana-based Arellano Felix cartel, Teodoro Garcia Simental, alias "El Teo," is captured in La Paz, Baja California Sur, in January 2010. The criminal kingpin was known to dissolve his victims in barrels of lye.
- In late July, Ignacio "Nacho" Coronel Villareal, a top lieutenant to Guzman in the Sinaloa cartel, is killed in an army operation in Guadalajara, Jalisco.
- Mexican federal police capture U.S.-born Edgar Valdez Villareal, alias "La Barbie," in late August in Mexico state. Another top capo in the Beltran Leyva gang, "La Barbie" captured headlines for grinning slyly during his presentation to the news media. He remains in custody in Mexico but has requested extradition to the United States -- a prospect that might have been fueling all those smiles.
- In September, marines capture another Beltran Leyva leader, Sergio Villarreal, alias "El Grande" (pictured above), in the state of Puebla. His capture signaled a near-dismantling of the Beltran Leyva gang.
- A leader of the Gulf cartel, Antonio Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen, alias "Tony Tormenta," is killed in a fierce citywide battle with Mexican security forces in Matamoros, Tamaulipas state, in November.
- In December, the founder of the La Familia cartel, Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, alias "El Mas Loco," is believed to have died after a two-day battle with federal police in Michoacan state, where the cartel was formed. His body was never recovered by authorities, but his death did spark protests in Michoacan in favor of the cartel and against federal forces.
Captured or killed in 2011
- A founding member of the Zetas paramilitary cartel, Flavio Mendez Santiago, alias "The Yellow One," is arrested in January in the state of Oaxaca. Mendez was suspected of handling the Zetas-controlled smuggling of migrants from Central and South America.
- In June, a top La Familia leader, Jose de Jesus Mendez, alias "El Chango," is arrested without a struggle in the state of Aguascalientes.
Captured or killed in 2012, through Oct. 18
- Effectively wiping out the Gulf cartel leadership, Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sánchez, alias "El Coss," is arrested in September in the port city of Tampico. Costilla's arrest comes days after the arrest of another Gulf capo, Mario Cardenas Guillen, who is not listed as one of the most-wanted.
- Also last month, Zetas cartel leader Ivan Velasquez Caballero, alias "El Taliban," is caught by marines in the city of San Luis Potosi.
- News of the death of Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano in a shootout with marines in Coahuila state is dampened after his body is snatched from a funeral home by armed men. Lazcano's remains are still missing, but authorities said they used fingerprints to identify him and are now hoping to double-check with DNA from his dead parents.
Speaking after the capture of Lazcano, Calderon said it is imperative that the government continue its struggle against the cartels in the incoming administration of President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto. The two have already met behind closed doors to discuss security issues (links in Spanish).
Previously, Peña Nieto has affirmed that his government will not seek pacts with crime groups, as some sectors of Mexican society have speculated would occur.
The government has not updated the most-wanted list, which means that arrests of leaders of cartels that have recently emerged, such as those tied to the relatively new Knights Templar gang, do not figure into the count. Between 2010 and June of this year, more than $3.8 million in rewards have been doled out to individuals who provided information that led to a capo's arrest or death, government figures show.
Since the conflict began, cartels have branched out to other criminal enterprises, fueling more fighting among gangs. The crackdown against cartels has also led to growing claims of human-rights abuses committed by the military. Drugs, moreover, continue to move north to the U.S., while weapons and cash keep flowing south.
Security analyst Eduardo Guerrero, in an interview this week, said that the most-wanted list is significantly flawed despite its steady thinning out.
"I consider its effect to be moderate, if not negative," Guerrero said. "The demand for drugs, the private armies, and the networks of corruption that facilitate drug-trafficking do not cease to exist when a capo is captured or killed."
-- Daniel Hernandez
Photo: Mexican marines escort Sergio Villarreal Barragan, known as "El Grande" and one of the four most-wanted Beltran Leyva suspects, in September 2010. Credit: Semar, via EPA