20-year reign of Mexican drug lords may be ending

Sunday, March 16, 2003

MEXICO CITY -- The arrest of reputed drug cartel leader Osiel Cardenas, nearly a year after the death of a notorious drug lord and the arrest of his brother, could mark the end of an era for the narcotics kingpins who have dominated the nation for two decades.

Smaller, more businesslike gangs, which fight less among themselves but react violently to police pressure, appear to be taking the place of the big "corporate" cartels.

"These cartels have changed, they have fragmented, they have become more rationalized in some aspects," Mexican Defense Secretary Gen. Gerardo Vega said. "Obviously, this makes it harder to detect who their leaders are."

Cardenas was so powerful he enlisted dozens of police as bodyguards.

He was captured Friday after a shootout with Mexican troops in the border city of Matamoros, across from Brownsville, Texas.

Last February, Ramon Arellano Felix, once Mexico's most-wanted drug lord, was fatally shot by police in Mazatlan in February 2002. His brother Benjamin was arrested at his home a month later.

Legendary bravado

"It's possible that Ramon Arellano Felix was the last of the truly violent drug lords," Mexico's top anti-drug prosecutor, Estuardo Bermudez said.

Arellano Felix's wrath was the stuff of legend: He once killed a traffic cop because he didn't like the man's looks. Cardenas in his heydey was no slouch either; he reportedly held two U.S. agents at gunpoint in 1999 and told them "You gringos, this is my territory ... so get the hell out of here."

But the days of that kind of bravado may be over.

Many of the drug lords were so rich, so well-protected that even a man like Arellano Felix -- then at the top of the FBI's most-wanted list -- managed to cross the border to Texas, travel to California to visit his family, then cross back to Tijuana undetected, Mexican police say.

They left behind vast mansions, jewel-encrusted guns, and hundreds, if not thousands, of graves.

At least two suspected drug lords -- Vicente Carrillo Fuentes and Joaquin Loera Guzman -- remain at large, but their organizations appear to have been fractured by previous arrests.

While lacking the big names and reputations of the past, the new, nameless breed of traffickers may be smarter.

"The drug traffickers interact with each other," Bermudez said. "They've found out that the best way to get manage things is to tolerate each other."

While smaller drug gangs could be less murderous toward each other, they pose new problems for police.

The larger cartels were veritable corporations, with full time accountants, bankers, and money launderers. They shipped such huge quantities of drugs into the United States that they could write off the loss of a small percentage of shipments to police seizures as just a cost of doing business -- like bribing police.

But a smaller trafficker may see his whole operation folded by one police raid or fumigation run -- and thus may be more inclined to try to fight off police.

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