MEXICO is on a roll in its pursuit of its powerful drug lords. Late on Sunday, the government announced that another one of the country’s most wanted bandits had beencaptured at lunchtime in the city of Puebla, not far from Mexico City. Sergio Villareal Barragán, a hulking figure who was variously known as “King Kong” and “El Grande”, is thought to have been a senior lieutenant in the Beltrán Leyva organization, one of Mexico’s seven main drug-trafficking groups.
His arrest came less than a fortnight after the capture of Édgar Valdez Villareal, known as “La Barbie” for his blond hair and blue eyes, who is believed to have led a rival faction of the same organisation. Members of the Beltrán Leyva gang have been fighting a gruesome battle for control of the organisation since December, when Arturo Beltrán Leyva (“El Barbas”, or the Beard), the leader of the mob, was killed in a gunfight with security forces. The latest capture is “a new and powerful blow by the federal government against organised crime,” said Alejandro Poiré, the co-ordinator of the national security council, who described the Beltrán Leyva outfit as “profoundly weakened”.
Other mobs have taken hits in recent months as well. In July, Ignacio Coronel Villareal was shot dead by troops in a wealthy suburb of the city of Guadalajara. He was said to have been the third-in-command in the powerful Sinaloa “cartel”, which controls much of western Mexico and has proved elusive. In January, another collaborator of Sinaloa’s, Teodoro García, was captured in the coastal city of La Paz. He was accused of ordering his victims to be dissolved in barrels of acid by his henchman, known as “the soup-maker”.
The string of arrests is welcome relief for the federal government from the run of mainly bad news that the war against the drug traffickers generates. It has been fortunate for Mr Poiré, who began his security role less than a month ago and already has two major scalps to show. A former politics chair at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, Mr Poiré is mentioned by some as a possible presidential candidate for the ruling National Action Party (PAN), which finds itself thin on potential nominees ahead of the 2012 election.
But the latest captures come with two caveats. Firstly, arresting suspects is not much good when Mexican prisons are so hopelessly insecure. Last week at least 85 prisonersescaped from a jail in the northern state of Tamaulipas, where the previous month 40 lags had escaped from a different prison. The prison’s director and guards are being questioned about their alleged involvement in the more recent case. Extradition to jails in the United States, where many Mexican criminals are wanted on charges of drug-running, is one answer, until Mexico can run more secure prisons of its own.
The other question mark is over the long-term effectiveness of the government’s strategy of taking out the heads of drug-trafficking organisations. The Beltrán Leyva case is an example: after the boss was killed last year, all hell broke loose in the gang’s home territory of Morelos, as Barbie battled King Kong and co. for control of the empire. Following the latest arrests, residents of the state can hope for things to calm down. But it seems likely that the business will soon pass into the hands of a new boss, or be subsumed into another mob. Removing even the most brilliant entrepreneurs of the drugs business does little to dent the forces of supply and demand.