MEXICO CITY – A Texas-born fugitive known as “the Barbie” grinned Tuesday as police paraded him in handcuffs and described his alleged life of luxury and savagery – cut short when he became the third suspected drug lord to fall in Mexico in the past 10 months in a coup for President Felipe Calderon’s war on cartels.
Edgar Valdez Villarreal is a former Texas high school football player who allegedly jumped into the world of Mexican drug cartels and gradually rose through the ranks.
Valdez, who got his improbable nickname for his green eyes and fair complexion, is wanted in the U.S. for allegedly smuggling tons of cocaine. In Mexico, he is blamed for a brutal turf war that has included bodies hung from bridges, decapitations and shootouts as he and a rival fought for control of the divided Beltran Leyva cartel.
As Valdez was displayed to reporters Tuesday, he still wore the green polo shirt in which he was captured the day before. He shifted his weight and smiled often as police described a high-flying and violent life.
Security forces had been closing in on Valdez for more than a year. Their biggest breakthrough was the death of his boss, Arturo Beltran Leyva, in a December shootout with marines, Federal Police Commissioner Facundo Rosas said at the news conference.
The arrest of several of Valdez’s allies, U.S. intelligence tips and other sources provided evidence that Valdez had left his home of 10 years in the resort of Acapulco – where he owned at least one posh bar that was raided in 2009 – to lead a lower-profile life in wealthy neighborhoods of Mexico City, Rosas said.
Mexican security officials began getting hits on Valdez’s whereabouts six weeks ago and approached U.S. officials for help, according to U.S. law enforcement officials in Washington, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case. They said intelligence from U.S. agents helped lead to his arrest.
“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 of the officials said.
Mexican federal police nearly nabbed Valdez during a raid in an upscale neighborhood of the Mexican capital Aug. 8. He got away, Rosas said, but police found clues there that led them to a woody weekend getaway just outside the city where he was finally caught Tuesday by an elite squad of federal police trained abroad.
His U.S. lawyer, Kent Schaffer, said Valdez’s girlfriend and her mother were both arrested in recent Mexican operations.
“This has been going on for quite a while. They raided several of his homes. They detained his girlfriend’s mother at one of his homes about three weeks ago,” Schaffer told The Associated Press. “So you figure it’s just a matter of a time.”
Valdez and four other people – described by police as Valdez’s inner security circle – were pulling into the driveway when they were arrested, Rosas said in an interview with MVS Radio. Although he had two guns and a grenade launcher, Valdez didn’t resist because police “never gave him the opportunity,” Facundo said.
Another of his associates was killed during a shootout with police outside a shopping mall in the city.
Facundo said Valdez was found with three unostentatious compact cars – evidence that he had tried to lay low as security forces hunted him.
Calderon called Valdez “one of the most-wanted criminals in Mexico and abroad” in a Tweet. He vowed that authorities will continue to chase the rest of his gang.
Valdez, 37, was charged in May in U.S. District Court in Atlanta with distributing thousands of pounds of cocaine from Mexico to the eastern U.S. from 2004 to 2006.
U.S. authorities had offered a reward of up to $2 million for information leading to his capture, and the Mexican government offered a similar amount. But Facundo said security forces nabbed Valdez on their own, and there would be no reward.
Mexican authorities had not decided on any extradition plans.
Schaffer said Valdez is an illegal immigrant in Mexico and could be deported.
“He was born and raised in Texas. His family’s here. There’s no Mexican citizenship at all,” Schaffer said to The Associated Press. “Mexico may not be so eager to hand him over, but it would be the smartest thing for Mexico to do politically.”
Facundo said deportation was a possibility but that police would prefer that he first face justice in Mexico for several dozen murders he is suspected to be behind. However, he said the final decision would be up to the federal Attorney General’s Office.
Schaffer said Valdez’s safety could be compromised in a Mexican prison.
“I’m sure there’s a whole lot of people that are hoping that he would have been killed rather than captured,” he said.
Mexican authorities say Valdez has been battling for control of the Beltran Leyva cartel since Arturo Beltran Leyva was killed in a December shootout with marines in Cuernavaca, a favorite weekend getaway south of the Mexican capital.
Valdez’s fight against Hector Beltran Leyva – a brother of Arturo – has made a battleground of what was once a relatively peaceful pocket of the country and brought the drug war ever closer to Mexico City. Their fight also has spread westward toward the resort city of Acapulco.
The U.S. State Department says Valdez headed a group of assassins for the Beltran Leyva gang. He “is the person most responsible for pushing the battle into central and southern Mexico,” the department says on its website.
Benitez said the violence in the region could decrease over time, as the government has disrupted Valdez’s crusade to create a new cartel from his split with the Beltran Leyvas. But it won’t initially, he added, because gang lieutenants always fight for control immediately after a big boss is brought down.