MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Hector Beltran Leyva, one of the most notorious Mexican drug lords still at large, was captured on Wednesday by soldiers at a seafood restaurant in a picturesque town in central Mexico popular with American retirees.
The government’s announcement it had snared the boss of the Beltran Leyva cartel is a serious blow to a gang named after a group of brothers who became infamous for the bloody turf war they waged with their former ally, Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman.
Beltran Leyva was caught in the picture postcard town of San Miguel de Allende, a three-hour drive northwest of Mexico City, and had been living in the nearby city of Queretaro posing as a businessman dealing in art and real estate, the government said.
The 49-year-old Beltran Leyva and an associate were carrying military-issue handguns, but like his adversary Guzman, he was arrested without a shot being fired. Guzman, who was the world’s most wanted drug boss, was captured in Mexico in February.
Beltran Leyva shunned luxury cars, passing himself off as a well-off businessman, said Tomas Zeron, director of criminal investigations at the Attorney General’s office.
“(Beltran Leyva) kept his operations away from his home so as not to alter his discreet, low-key lifestyle, avoiding attracting the attention of neighbors or friends or the authorities,” Zeron said.
Beltran Leyva now faces charges of trafficking cocaine from Mexico and South America to the United States and Europe and a host of other crimes. In November, the U.S. Treasury Department said the Beltran Leyva gang was responsible for “countless murders” of Mexican anti-drugs and military personnel.
Hector’s capture is a major victory for President Enrique Pena Nieto, who has sought to shift focus away from the violence that fighting the drug gangs has spawned in recent years and onto the economic reforms he has pushed through Congress.
Pena Nieto on his Twitter account touted the capture of Beltran Leyva, who had bounties on his head of $5 million in the United States and 30 million pesos ($2.2 million) in Mexico.
Hector, who Zeron said had likely branched out into selling synthetic drugs, was the only one of the gang’s brothers known to be involved in drug trafficking not dead or behind bars.
When Mexican special forces arrested Alfredo Beltran Leyva in early 2008, the brothers reportedly believed Guzman had sold out their sibling, sparking a war with the boss of the Sinaloa Cartel based in the northwestern state of the same name.
Over the next three years, the rupture ushered in a new brutality to the violence that overshadowed the 2006-2012 administration of then-President Felipe Calderon.
By 2010, the Beltran Leyvas had lost several leaders and Hector, alias “The Engineer,” was in control.
The Beltran Leyva gang has had a reputation as one of the most vengeful and ruthless in the business.
When Hector’s older brother Arturo was killed by Mexican marines in December 2009, the government honored one of the young marines slain in the raid and images of the family funeral were broadcast around the country.
The next day, gunmen swept into the family home and killed the marine’s mother, sister, brother and an aunt.
For years, the Beltran Leyva brothers had worked with other Sinaloan gangsters, notably Guzman, helping to manage his network of hitmen. The brothers and Guzman hailed from the same region of Sinaloa, and marriages also linked the two clans.
Guzman reportedly tasked the Beltran Leyva organization with infiltrating Mexico’s security and political apparatus.
Security experts went as far as to credit Hector Beltran Leyva with having an informant inside the office of then-President Vicente Fox a decade ago. The official, Nahum Acosta, was arrested in 2005 but later released for lack of evidence.
At its peak, the Beltran Leyva cartel dominated drug-trafficking in western Mexico. After the break with Guzman, the brothers forged alliances of convenience with former rivals in the Gulf Cartel as well as the ruthless Zetas.
After Arturo’s death, the Beltran Leyva organization was weakened by infighting as a split emerged between Hector and a faction led by U.S.-born Edgar Valdez Villarreal, alias “La Barbie,” whom Mexican authorities arrested in August 2010.
Lately, however, U.S. officials said that the Beltran Leyva cartel had begun to expand after rebuilding itself.
Additional reporting by Dave Graham and Michael O'Boyle; Writing by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Simon Gardner