MEXICO CITY — Mexican officials say they have struck a major blow against a faction of the hyper-violent Zetas cartel, arresting one of the country's most-wanted drug traffickers, Ivan Velazquez Caballero, known as "El Taliban," and placing him on display in a Thursday morning press conference.
Velazquez Caballero allegedly has been fighting a bloody internal battle with top Zetas' leader Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, and officials have said the split was behind a recent surge in massacres and shootouts, particularly in northern Mexico.
Masked marines displayed the burly, handcuffed suspect alongside two alleged accomplices and a table of guns and other contraband seized during his arrest.
Velazquez Caballero is the third alleged cartel leader to be taken into custody this month. All are accused of leading factions of the Gulf Cartel or Zetas, former allies now feuding over valuable smuggling territory along the U.S. border. The alleged heads of the two main factions of the Gulf group, Maria Cardenas Guillen and Jorge Eduardo Costillo Sanchez, were also seized in Navy operations in northern Mexico.
In the waning months of President Felipe Calderon's presidency, the arrests add to the list of cartel figures taken out of action as part of his U.S.-backed strategy of removing the leadership of drug-smuggling organizations.
Calderon and the Obama administration say the strategy is working, but many independent groups say it has helped fuel a massive surge in violence nationwide by fracturing and destabilizing cartels and spawning deadly fights over territory.
The Zetas are one of Mexico's two most powerful cartels. The head of the other, Sinaloa cartel head Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, remains free, and there have been far fewer arrests of his associates.
Navy spokesman Jose Luis Vergara said marines acting on unspecified intelligence were conducting patrols in a neighborhood in the city of San Luis Potosi when they spotted a group of men leaving a house. When the men spotted the marines, they moved suspiciously back into the house, Vergara said, and marines followed, arresting Velazquez Caballero and two other men inside.
Also known as "Z-50," Velazquez Caballero has a 30 million peso ($2.3 million) reward on his head.
The arrest could calm some of the brutal violence that has hit border cities like Nuevo Laredo, across from Laredo, Texas, in recent weeks, although Mexican officials said they believed fighting could restart in coming weeks or months as a fight begins for Velazquez Caballero's former territory.
On Sept. 14, eight men were found shot to death and one hanging from a bridge in Nuevo Laredo, territory officials say was traditionally controlled by Trevino Morales, alias "Z-40." Analysts say 14 bullet-ridden bodies stuffed in a van in mid-August in San Luis Potosi were men loyal to "El Taliban," and may have been left there as a warning by Trevino Morales' underlings.
Discussing recent fighting, a U.S. official in Mexico who could not be named for security reason said earlier this week that "I think right now the uptick that I'm seeing is between '40' and '50'," referring to Trevino Morales and Velazquez Caballero by their "Z'' aliases.
The Zetas cartel takes its name from a police radio code in which "Z'' means "commander," and a number refers to rank.
The official said Velazquez Caballero appeared to have formed an alliance of convenience with the Knights Templar cartel based in southern Michoacan state for his fight with Trevino Morales.
Banners signed by various elements of the Zetas and hung from overpasses in several Mexican states appeared to confirm mutual hatred between Trevino Morales and Velazquez Caballero. In the obscenity-laden banners, the two accused each other of betraying fellow traffickers and preying on civilians.
The development could strengthen Trevino Morales, who shares allegedly leadership of the Zetas with Heriberto Lazcano, alias "El Lazca." Vergara said Velazquez Caballero had controlled drug-smuggling territory in the states of Zacatecas, Aguascalientes and parts of Guanajuato and Coahuila, and also commanded Zetas foot soldiers in the city of Monterrey. Velazquez Caballero was also described as the one-time financial head of the Zetas, with responsibility for the group's money laundering.
Vergara confirmed Velazquez Caballero had feuded with Trevino Morales, and said he had been seeking an alliance with the Gulf Cartel.
The U.S. official played down recent speculation that Trevino Morales and Lazcano had also fallen out.
"I'm not familiar with a fight between him (Trevino Morales) and Lazca," the official said. "I think he and Lazca — Lazca is doing his thing and he is doing his, and they're still together from what I understand."
Lawmen and even competing drug capos picture Trevino as a brutal assassin who favors getting rid of foes by stuffing them into oil drums, dousing them with gasoline and setting them on fire, a practice known as a "guiso," a Spanish word for "stew."
The Zetas are already considered the hemisphere's most violent criminal organization. They have been blamed for a large share of the tens of thousands of deaths in Mexico's war on drugs, though other gangs also have repeatedly committed mass slayings.
Running gun battles between Navy personnel and gunmen broke out late Wednesday in the border city of Piedras Negras, across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas.
Officials in the border state of Coahuila confirmed the shootouts, and state security spokesman Sergio Cisbeles said the confrontation was serious, but he could not immediately confirm whether there anyone was wounded or dead.
The Zetas have been known to be active in Coahuila state, but it was unclear whether the confrontations in Piedras Negras were related in any way to the capture of Velazquez Caballero.