MEXICO CITY — Police on Monday captured a Texas-born accused drug kingpin known for his unlikely nickname — La Barbie — and for ruthlessly ordering the beheadings of his enemies.
Edgar Valdez-Villarreal, 37, was captured in the town of Lerma in the state of Mexico, about 20 miles from the capital, marking the third major accused drug lord to fall in Mexico in less than a year and giving a boost to President Felipe Calderon.
Government spokesmen said a massive operation with 1,200 officers took part in the culminating moments of a yearlong effort to capture Valdez-Villarreal.
The arrest dealt "a high impact blow to organized crime," said Alejandro Poire, a spokesman for Calderon's national security team. Poire said Valdez-Villarreal had ties to gangs operating in the United States, Central and South America.
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More than 28,000 people have died since Calderon came to office in late 2006 and deployed the armed forces to battle drug cartels, and many Mexicans are weary of the soaring human costs of the war.
Calderon confirmed the arrest in a short message on Twitter: "Federal police trapped 'La Barbie,' one of the most wanted criminals in Mexico and abroad."
Valdez-Villarreal got his start in the Sinaloa Cartel under Mexico’s most wanted drug lord, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. When his immediate boss, Arturo Beltran-Leyva, broke away two years ago, Valdez-Villarreal went along to help him establish his own drug organization.
Beltran-Leyva was killed in a shootout with Mexican marines last December, and Valdez-Villareal sought to take over the group.
The U.S. Justice Department maintained a $2 million bounty on the head of Valdez-Villarreal, who won his nickname because a high school football coach in Laredo, Texas, thought his blue eyes and light hair made him look like Ken, the companion to the Barbie doll.
The El Universal newspaper reported Tuesday that Valdez-Villarreal has "one foot on a plane bound for the United States" to stand trial.
A federal indictment unsealed in Atlanta in June charged that Valdez-Villarreal, a U.S. citizen, imported tons of cocaine by tractor-trailer across the border at Laredo, Texas, and into the eastern United States between 2004 and 2006.
Authorities released video of Valdez-Villarreal during his capture. In it, he sported a light beard and tightly cropped hair, breaking into a smirk, then smiling at the camera. He wore an emerald green polo shirt with "London" written in large white letters on the chest.
"This is an extraordinary achievement," Felipe Gonzalez, head of the Senate commission on public security, told Foro TV. "There was an air around this guy that he was untouchable, that he would never be caught."
The arrest is certain to give Calderon, who faces sagging public support, a boost in his campaign to confront drug traffickers, even at great human cost.
Less than a month ago, law enforcement agents in Guadalajara killed Ignacio "Nacho" Coronel, a drug lord in the Sinaloa Cartel who was considered the "king of ice," or crystal methamphetamine.
Just last weekend further evidence emerged of the brutal struggle between La Barbie's gang and followers of Hector Beltran-Leyva, brother of the slain drug chieftain, for control of the criminal organization.
Henchmen strung up the decapitated bodies of four men from a bridge Sunday in Cuernavaca, a weekend getaway near Mexico City. Hector Beltran-Leyva's faction left a sign left with the bodies.
"This is what will happen to all those who support the traitor Edgar Valdez- Villarreal," the sign said.
Poire said Valdez-Villarreal and his gang operated mainly in the Mexican states of Morelos, Guerrero, Mexico and Sinaloa, and were involved not only in drug trafficking but also money laundering, extortion and car theft.
Earlier Monday, authorities announced that they had fired or were removing 3,200 members of the 34,000 federal police. The officers failed lie detector tests or other measures to determine if they were free from corruption, said Facundo Rosas, commissioner of the force.
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