By Erick Duran
CUERNAVACA, Mexico (Reuters) – Mexican security forces tracked down and killed drug lord Arturo Beltran Leyva, one of the most wanted traffickers in Mexico and the United States, in a victory for President Felipe Calderon’s drug war.
Beltran Leyva, a cartel chief dubbed “The Boss of Bosses,” was shot dead on Wednesday evening by Navy forces in a gated luxury residential complex in the southern city of Cuernavaca, a weekend getaway for wealthy city dwellers.
The strike, five days after Beltran Leyva escaped another army operation targeting him, is a major coup for Calderon at the end of a year when drug gang violence has exploded to unprecedented levels and cartel arrests have been flagging.
“We started following up our intelligence on Friday. It seems that that day he got away, but the proof of what we had is what we have delivered to the Mexican people today,” Rear Admiral Jose Luis Vergara told Mexican television.
Beltran Leyva, 58, who ran a cartel based in northwestern Mexico bearing his family name, was an ally turned foe of Mexico’s No.1 most wanted man, Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman, who has been on the run since escaping from prison in 2001.
Sometimes dubbed “White Boots” for the color of his leather cowboy boots, he enjoyed protection from corrupt police in Mexico City and surrounding states and moved between luxurious mansions and apartments, including in the Pacific beach resort of Acapulco.
Navy forces arrived by helicopter and television images showed them surrounding the residence in the dark amid the sound of gunshots and grenades. Security forces laid spikes on the road to stop anyone escaping by car.
Six bodyguards died with Beltran Leyva, one of whom shot himself rather than be taken and interrogated. One of the six was his brother Mario, Mexican media said.
His cartel is one of half a dozen whose turf wars have slain more than 16,000 people since Calderon came to power in late 2006 and set the army on drug traffickers.
Despite a 49,000-troop presence across Mexico, drug gang killings have skyrocketed this year to an unprecedented 7,000 and atrocities including torture and decapitations are common.
Navy forces, who analysts say have stronger intelligence and are less prone to corruption, have increasingly joined federal police and army troops in Calderon’s drug war.
Beltran Leyva has several lieutenants likely to step up and fill his shoes, such as Sergio Villa Real, whose nicknames include “King Kong” and “Child Eater”.
“This is a victory for Calderon in the short term, but his position will be filled very quickly,” Alberto Islas, a Mexico City-based security analyst, said of Beltran Leyva.
He predicted more violence as rival drug gangs try to take back territory lost to the Beltran Leyvas in recent years in southern Mexico and Mexico City.
The Beltran Leyvas have been engaged in a gruesome fight over smuggling routes into the United States with Guzman.
Mexican anti-drug officials say Beltran Leyva laundered profits through a professional indoor Sinaloan soccer team, luxury hotels in Acapulco and real estate outside Mexico City.
Last year, police found a weapons arsenal in a house in an upscale district of Mexico City linked to Beltran Leyva. At another mansion near the capital, police stormed a party where a Colombian-led gang working for him kept two adult African lions, two tigers and two black panthers in cages.
Beltran Leyva had a $2.4 million tag on his head in Mexico, where he was wanted for organized crime and kidnapping.
In the United States, Attorney General Eric Holder had announced an indictment against Beltran Leyva and other top Mexican smugglers for moving billions of dollars of cocaine across the U.S. border. Washington also froze the U.S. assets of 22 individuals and 10 companies linked to the cartel.