MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Shunning the gem-studded pistols and gold chains flaunted by their fathers, a savvy new generation of drug smugglers is moving up the ranks of Mexico’s cartels wielding college degrees and keeping low profiles to outsmart police.
The fashionably-dressed sons of two prominent drug bosses were recently arrested in smart Mexico City neighborhoods, suspected of laundering money for the Juarez and Sinaloa cartels while moving seamlessly among the country’s elite.
They typify a new wave of leaders of Mexico’s warring drug cartels, whose turf wars killed 6,300 people last year. Often the urbane offspring of cartel founders, they bring a clean-cut management style to the murky multibillion dollar enterprise.
“These people are usually better prepared, better educated and very useful for the cartels because they’re professionals,” said political analyst Jorge Chabat.
“They’re harder to identify because they don’t look like typical drug traffickers,” he said. “You can’t detect them by saying ‘Oh look, he has a big truck with wide tires and automatic weapons, gold chains, snakeskin boots and a big belt buckle and dark glasses.’”
President Felipe Calderon has put dozens of top traffickers behind bars, along with thousands of low-level hitmen and drug runners, in an army-led war on cartels that has Washington worried about a possible spillover of violence.
For years the classic image of a Mexican drug baron has been of a macho gunslinger who revels in an ostentatious lifestyle of bad taste. But that may be changing.
Vicente Carrillo Leyva, the suave 32-year-old son of legendary drug lord Amado Carrillo Fuentes, was nabbed last week while jogging in a park near his house in the capital’s most exclusive district and paraded in front of news cameras in a slick white Abercrombie & Fitch sweatsuit and trendy specs.
His late father was known as the “Lord of the Skies” for flying jets full of cocaine to the United States in the 1990s. A high-living patriarch, when he died he was building himself an extravagant four-level palace in the Mexican border city of Nogales with soaring white domes and a 12-foot exterior wall.
Carrillo Leyva, nicknamed “The Engineer”, grew up among a wealthy elite, was educated abroad and enjoyed frequent trips to Europe. He reportedly speaks English and French well and had invested in a high-end boutique selling Versace clothes.
Neighbors said he lived a low-profile life.
“No parties, no noise; these neighbors were very discreet. The young man went out running in the morning and his wife was very nice,” a local resident told El Universal newspaper.
Also captured this month, Vicente Zambada, 33, the son of Sinaloa cartel boss Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, lived a little larger, with luxury cars and five armed body guards.
But in his toned-down outfit of jeans, pressed shirt and jacket, he was undistinguishable from the young professionals who crowd Mexico’s upscale bars and restaurants.
“The older guys, their fathers, lived on the border and they often did the rough work of smuggling drugs and exterminating enemies,” said Tony Payan, a drug trade expert at the University of Texas in El Paso.
“These younger guys found it very comfortable to just move into the more financial part of the organization to try to legitimize the business,” he said.
Young drug gangsters dubbed ‘narco-juniors’ first appeared in the 1990s, when the Arellano Felix clan in Tijuana recruited their sons and daughters and affluent friends to run drugs and carry out killings. Zambada and Carrillo Leyva, more educated and refined, went straight to leadership roles.
The new style does not mean the young drug barons are less ruthless or protected from the violence. Heavily armed gunmen killed the son of Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman, Mexico’s most-wanted man, outside a shopping mall last year.
While they may not kill rivals themselves, they will order hits to stay ahead and are respected within the organizations, analysts say.
The new generation poses a challenge to Mexico’s ill-equipped, badly paid and often poorly educated police, since sophisticated intelligence is needed to catch them.
“They are paying a lot of attention to developing their top brass,” said Mexican security expert Alberto Islas. “We are not out-gunning them and we are not out-smarting them. I think that’s why we are losing this war.”
Editing by Catherine Bremer