Troops Kill Senior 'Capo' of Mighty Mexican Drug Cartel

MEXICO CITY -- Soldiers killed a top leader of the Sinaloa cartel in a raid on his posh hideout, dealing the biggest blow yet to Mexico's most powerful drug gang since President Felipe Calderon launched a military offensive against organized crime in 2006.

Ignacio "Nacho" Coronel, a reputed founder of Mexico's methamphetamine trade, was gunned down trying to escape soldiers in the western city of Guadalajara. Mexican authorities says he fired on soldiers as helicopters hovered overhead and troops closed in.

Coronel was a close associate of Mexico's most wanted man, Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, and was No. 3 in the organization after Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada.

"Nacho Coronel tried to escape, and fired on military personnel, killing one soldier and wounding another," Gen. Edgar Luis Villegas said at a news conference in Mexico City. "Responding to the attack, this 'capo' died."

The raid "significantly affects the operational capacity and drug distribution of the organization run by Guzman," he added.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration called Coronel's death "a crippling blow" to the Sinaloa cartel.

"We congratulate the Government of Mexico on this victory in their sustained efforts to dismantle the drug cartels by targeting the highest levels of cartel leadership," the DEA said in a statement.

Coronel's downfall came amid persistent allegations that Calderon's administration appeared to be favoring the Sinaloa cartel, or not hitting it as hard as other drug gangs.

Those allegations have drawn angry denials from the president and his top law enforcement officials, who point to the 2009 arrest of Vicente "El Vicentillo" Zambada -- the son of Ismael Zambada -- as proof they were going after the gang.

Coronel's death was also the biggest strike against Mexican cartels since drug lord Arturo Beltran Leyva and six of his bodyguards were killed in a Dec. 16 raid by Mexican marines in the central city of Cuernavaca. Beltran Leyva, whose gang was once allied with the Sinaloa cartel, had become an enemy of Guzman's organization by the time of his death.

The mysterious Coronel was believed to be "the forerunner in producing massive amounts of methamphetamine in clandestine laboratories in Mexico, then smuggling it into the U.S.", according to the FBI, which offered a $5 million reward for the 56 year old.

Coronel allegedly controlled trafficking through the Mexican states of Jalisco, Colima and parts of Michoacan -- the "Pacific route" for cocaine smuggling.

"The scope of its influence and operations penetrate throughout the United States, Mexico, and several other European, Central American, and South American countries," according to an FBI statement.

Coronel ran his criminal cell out of Zapopan, according to the Mexican government, an upscale suburb that has been the scene of previous cartel arrests. Guzman's son was accused of killing two people outside a bar there in 2004.

In 2006 raids on four Zapopan homes, federal police arrested five of Coronel's lieutenants and seized more than $2 million in cash, along with expensive watches and jewelry -- but failed to find Coronel himself.

During Thursday's raid, soldiers appeared to search at least two homes and arrested Francisco Quinonez Gastelum, alleged to be Coronel's right-hand man and the only associate allowed to accompany him to his mansion.

"Coronel used two homes as safe houses ... and employed the tactic of being accompanied only by Quinonez Gastelum, to keep a low profile and not draw attention to himself," Villegas said.

Coronel was born in the northern state of Durango, the home state of many of Mexico's drug traffickers and was groomed to be a drug lord from an early age.

He rose up under Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the so-called "Lord of the Skies" and leader of the Juarez drug cartel who died in 1997. After Carrillo's death, Coronel joined the Sinaloa cartel and rose through the ranks to become the cartel's No. 3.

Little was known about him.

On its website of most wanted drug traffickers, the Mexican federal attorney general has three photographs of Coronel and gives his nickname, "Nacho." There are only blanks after "age," "place of origin," and "personal characteristics."