Published August 30, 2010
MEXICO CITY -- A former Texas high school football player and petty street dealer who allegedly rose to become one of Mexico's most savage assassins became the third major drug lord brought down by Mexico in less than a year, and could provide intelligence on even bigger kingpins.
Edgar Valdez Villarreal, known as "the Barbie" for his fair complexion and green eyes, grinned broadly Tuesday as police described a life of luxury and violence that made a battleground of central Mexico, where he waged a war for control against his slain boss's brother.
The 37-year-old Valdez faces charges in three U.S. states for trucking in tons of cocaine. As a U.S. citizen living illegally in Mexico, Valdez could be deported to the United States if Mexico agrees, or he could face prosecution in Mexico for drug-related crimes. Mexican authorities say he could be responsible for dozens of murders.
The arrest was portrayed by the Mexican and U.S. governments as a victory for President Felipe Calderon, who is trying to recover public support for his war on organized crime in the face of escalating violence.
Valdez's capture Monday on a ranch outside Mexico City was the culmination of a yearlong pursuit after police made some key arrests at XXXoticas, an Acapulco tourist bar owned by Valdez, who passed himself off there as an entrepreneur.
Mexican police said they chased Valdez across five Mexican states for a year, a pursuit that intensified in recent months as they raided home after home owned by the drug lord, missing him but nabbing several of his allies. Among those taken into custody was his girlfriend and her mother, Valdez's U.S. lawyer said.
"This has been going on for quite a while," attorney Kent Schaffer told The Associated Press. "So you figure it's just a matter of time."
The arrest also yielded computers, telephones and other equipment authorities said would likely provide more information about his group.
Born in the border city of Laredo, Texas, Valdez grew up in a middle-class subdivision popular with Border Patrol agents, police officers and firefighters. His father was a nightclub and bar owner.
The former Laredo United High School linebacker became a small-time street dealer as a teen, before rising to become the head of a group of assassins for Mexico's notorious Beltran Leyva gang, allied with the powerful Sinaloa cartel, according to U.S. and Mexican officials.
U.S. prosecutors say Valdez has been the source of tons of cocaine smuggled into the United States while cartel dealers shipped millions of dollars in cash back to Mexico in tractor-trailer trucks.
Valdez's first arrest came at 19 in Texas, where he was charged with criminally negligent homicide for allegedly running over a middle school counselor in his truck while speeding down a Laredo street. He was never indicted.
Minor scrapes with the law followed: drunken driving, speeding, public intoxication. All the while, Valdez worked as a small-time street dealer -- a small fish to state narcotics officers, according to Martin Cuellar, now the Webb County sheriff, who was an undercover narcotics officer at the time.
After leaving Texas for Mexico, Valdez quickly rose through the ranks of the Beltran Leyva cartel, police say. He was anointed head of Acapulco operations by cartel leader Arturo Beltran Leyva after serving as the drug kingpin's top bodyguard, according to Federal Police Commissioner Facundo Rosas.
In Mexico, Valdez built up a life of luxury, with homes in the most expensive neighborhoods of Mexico City.
"He was flamboyant, he felt like he was untouchable," said a senior U.S. law enforcement official, who wasn't authorized to speak on the record.
That life started to crumble as Mexican law enforcement took on the Beltran Leyva gang. Two years ago, a widespread corruption probe toppled the cartel's top government protectors, including Mexico's former drug czar.
The biggest coup came in December, when Mexican marines killed cartel lord Arturo Beltran Leyva during a gunbattle in Cuernavaca.
That unleashed a gruesome fight between Valdez and Beltran Leyva's brother, Hector, the only one of the cartel's founders who was still at large. Decapitated and dismembered bodies littered the streets of Cuernavaca and Acapulco -- and often hung from bridges -- along with messages threatening one of the two feuding factions.
Such bloody turf wars have repeatedly exploded following the downfall of top traffickers during Calderon's drug war, angering Mexicans who say life has become intolerable in parts of the country. Calderon's government says the violence is a sign cartel leaders are desperate and making mistakes that lead to their capture.
Running from security forces and his former allies, Valdez was forced to give up his high-flying lifestyle in Acapulco for a lower-profile existence among the wealthy in sprawling Mexico City, Rosas said.
Informants stepped forward. The fiery-tempered Valdez berated one accomplice for shooting Paraguayan soccer player Salvador Cabanas during an argument at a Mexico City bar in January, an attack that led to the arrest of a minor henchman, who later told police about Valdez's fury over the incident.
More of his allies fell in a series of raids and shootouts in Mexico City, Acapulco and other towns. Fifteen Valdez henchmen were killed in a battle with soldiers in June in Taxco, a mountain hamlet outside of Mexico City where authorities had recently discovered the bodies of 55 cartel victims dumped in a mine shaft.
The pursuit intensified six weeks ago when Mexican security officials began getting tips on Valdez's whereabouts and approached U.S. agents for help, according to U.S. law enforcement officials in Washington, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity surrounding the arrest. U.S. intelligence helped pinpoint his location Monday.
"We were on his heels for the last six weeks, receiving tips, but Mexican law enforcement would show up and they would miss him. He was feeling the heat of Mexican law enforcement," one U.S. official said.
An elite, U.S.-trained Mexican federal police squad arrested Valdez and four accomplices in a woody weekend getaway outside Mexico City.
The U.S. and Mexican governments had offered rewards totaling $4 million for information leading to Valdez's capture. However, Rosas said security forces nabbed Valdez on their own and there would be no reward.
Authorities believe Valdez can provide intelligence on other top traffickers, including Sinaloa chief Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, Mexico's most-wanted drug lord.
"Because they caught La Barbie alive, he will be a very important source of information against El Chapo," said Raul Benitez, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who studies the drug trade. "La Barbie was once the bodyguard of El Chapo Guzman."
Valdez's presentation before the media Tuesday coincided with an announcement that Colombian authorities had detained 11 people allegedly linked to the Mexican kingpin in that South American cocaine-producing country. Rosas said the arrests were likely related, with Colombian authorities taking advantage of a break in his organization.
Rosas also said Valdez has already started talking: He informed police that on the night Beltran Leyva died, the drug boss called him as marines were closing in. Valdez said he had urged the capo to turn himself in, advice Beltran Leyva apparently ignored, Rosas said.
After that, Rosas said, the Beltran Leyva gang started suspecting that Valdez had tipped authorities to Beltran Leyva's whereabouts. Rosas did not say whether those suspicions were true.
Rosas said he expected the turf war in central Mexico to rage on for a while as Valdez's allies struggle to hang on and as other cartels try to move in on the territory. But he said he was hopeful that this time the downfall of a drug lord would eventually curb the bloodshed.
"In the end, the balance will be positive. The violence will diminish," he said.