Mexican marines have captured a renegade leader of the Zetas known as El Taliban in the latest blow by the U.S.-backed commando campaign against the violent gang operating south of the Texas border.
Ivan Velazquez Caballero, 42, was dragged Wednesday evening from a safe house in a middle class neighborhood in the city of San Luis Potosi. Though accompanied by two bodyguards, Velazquez apparently was seized without a shot being fired. He and his two alleged accomplices were presented to the media early Thursday.
"It was a great job on the part of the Mexican government and military," said Rusty Payne, a Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman in Washington. "We're working side by side in Mexico. We pass them leads. We give them information and they act upon it. We've definitely helped the Mexicans put the puzzle together."
Mexico's government put a $2.5 million price on Velazquez's head last spring. He also faces a U.S. criminal indictment on drug-trafficking charges in the Houston-based Southern District of Texas.
Broke with Zetas
Formerly a senior Zetas lieutenant, Velazquez had broken with the gang's top bosses in recent months, allying himself with remnants of the rival Gulf Cartel and Knights Templar gangs to vie for control of key border cities and smuggling routes.
His fall, combined with the Navy's capture this month of two Gulf Cartel leaders, could bolster efforts by Zetas kingpins Miguel Angel Trevino, known as Z-40, and Heriberto Lazcano to consolidate underworld control along the entire south Texas border.
Velazquez's arrest came hours after marines captured 18 alleged Zetas gunmen close to the border upriver from McAllen, an area that lately has been considered Gulf Cartel territory. But running battles also erupted later Wednesday between marines and gunmen in the center of Piedras Negras, which shares the Rio Grande with Eagle Pass and is considered to be under Trevino's sway.
The quickly shifting alliances and battlefronts can make the gangster feuds resemble a full-blown war. But Mexican and U.S. officials stress that at its heart, the violence is about criminal enterprise -- primarily getting illegal drugs to American and other consumers and bringing the profits home.
"The whole battle is for the routes, getting the drugs and money across," said a U.S. official in Mexico, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Nuevo Laredo and other towns and cities bordering south Texas rank among the biggest prizes.
The Zetas split from their former patrons in the Gulf Cartel in February 2010 and have since grown into one of Mexico's leading criminal syndicates, trailing only Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman's so-called Pacific Federation.
Marines this month arrested Gulf Cartel leaders Mario Cardenas Guillen and Eduardo Costilla, further weakening that once-dominant gang.
Started as a teen
Velazquez grew up in Nuevo Laredo and began his criminal career as a teenager stealing cars. Like Trevino, he joined the Zetas after the group was formed in the late 1990s and was among the few to rise to leadership in the group who were not ex-soldiers, like Lazcano, officials said.
In addition to being indicted on drug-trafficking and money-laundering charges, court documents and testimony in recent years tie Velazquez to several murders across the border in Laredo.
The split between Velazquez and his former Zetas bosses became public in mid-August with the discovery of the bodies of 14 Velazquez gunmen stuffed into a van parked outside San Luis Potosi. Scores also have been killed this month in Nuevo Laredo as the factions battle it out.
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