TIJUANA, Mexico – Federal troops stormed a seaside vacation home and captured one of the country’s most brutal drug lords Tuesday, the second time in less than a month that Mexico has taken down one of its most powerful traffickers.
The arrest was considered another victory for enhanced surveillance techniques that are being cultivated with the assistance of the United States. American anti-drug officials had been helping Mexican authorities track Teodoro Garcia Simental for more than five months.
Garcia, known as “El Teo,” was arrested before dawn near the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula, where his gang had been bringing in planeloads of drugs to smuggle across the U.S. border, said Ramon Eduardo Pequeno, head of the federal police’s anti-drug unit.
Garcia, in his mid-30s, is connected to the deaths of at least 300 people, authorities say, and ordered his rivals disposed of in especially grisly ways: beheading them, hanging their bodies from bridges or dissolving them in caustic soda. He took hefty ransom payments from kidnapping Tijuana business leaders.
He is also believed to be behind many of the dozens of assassinations of Tijuana police officers over the last two years. Pequeno said Garcia had recently stepped up efforts to kill Baja California’s attorney general, Rommel Moreno, and Tijuana’s public safety chief, Julian Leyzaola.
President Felipe Calderon launched an all-out war upon taking office in December 2006, sending thousands of troops out to combat the drug gangs. But until recently the government had little success in taking down the top kingpins, and Mexicans have been growing increasingly frustrated with a war that has left more than 15,000 casualties.
That changed on Dec. 16, when another drug lord, Arturo Beltran Leyva, was killed in a raid by Mexican marines in the colonial city of Cuernavaca, just south of Mexico City. Authorities said U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials had been helping them track Beltran Leyva as well. On Jan. 2, federal officials arrested his brother, Carlos Beltran Leyva.
“The government is being more subtle with regard to its pursuit of drug traffickers,” said George W. Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. “It’s relying much more on electronic techniques, eavesdropping, inspection of one’s lifestyle. It’s also paying pretty good money to informants.”
U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual said Garcia’s arrest shows the sharing of information between U.S. and Mexican law enforcement is producing results.
“Mexico’s operational capacity is growing,” Pascual said in a statement. “We continue to improve our sharing of information. The Mexican government is unrelenting in its determination and commitment.”
More than 150 federal troops raided a two-story, vacation home near the city of La Paz, shooting at the door and then barging in, said a neighbour who asked not to be identified out of fear the gang could retaliate. The troops quickly escorted Garcia and another man out of the home and into SUVs.
Police seized two rifles, 19 mobile phones, two laptop computers and more than $35,000 in Mexican and U.S. currency, Pequeno said.
Garcia appeared with authorities in Mexico City looking much heavier than in the two photos that have been widely circulated. Another alleged trafficker, Diego Raymundo Guerrero, was also detained.
Garcia joined the Tijuana-based Arellano Felix in 1995, Pequeno said, and rose through the ranks. He broke from the group in an April 2008 shootout, plunging the city across the border from San Diego into a period of unprecedented violence. More than 1,500 people have been murdered in Tijuana since the beginning of 2008.
He ruled by ordering the killings of drug dealers who betrayed him, and buying off corrupt officials.
The arrest marks one of the most significant blows to Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel under Calderon – assuming that the Mexican government’s claims linking Garcia to that cartel are correct, said David Shirk, director of the University of San Diego’s Transborder Institute. Mexican officials say Garcia was the cartel’s point man in wresting control of the Baja California peninsula from the rival Arellano Felix cartel.
Garcia represents a new generation of Mexican drug traffickers who are much more savage than their predecessors, Shirk said.
“They play by a different set of rules, or maybe no rules, in terms of how they relate to their rivals,” he said.
Shirk speculated that the arrest of Garcia could be a result of intelligence gleaned from the capture of Arturo Beltran Leyva and other leaders of that organization.
“It’s quite possible that Beltran Leyva – no friend of the Sinaloa cartel – gave up information that helped track down El Teo,” he said.
He said the arrest could also reflect a strategy to hit several cartels at once. That could also bolster public support for Calderon’s fight among Mexicans who had been growing frustrated over the escalating violence.
Associated Press writers Ignacio Martinez in La Paz and Catherine Shoichet and Julie Watson in Mexico City contributed to this report.