MEXICO CITY - The arrest of a drug cartel lieutenant as he stepped off a private plane - fresh from a brazen baptism party held by his boss - has sparked a debate about whether Mexico is winning the drug war or facing a fearless enemy.
Soldiers acting on an anonymous tip arrested Rodolfo Lopez Ibarra on Tuesday at an airport in the northern city of Monterrey, as a convoy of armed men waited to ferry him to a luxury house and a set of offices in an upscale suburb.
The surprising thing wasn't Lopez Ibarra's private plane or the five women accompanying him on the flight. It was what Lopez allegedly told soldiers after he was arrested: He said he received his latest orders from Arturo Beltran Leyva at a baptism party held by the most-wanted cartel leader at the seaside resort of Acapulco.
Rather than hiding in remote mountain redoubts, Mexico's most wanted traffickers - some with prices of 30 million pesos (US$2.1 million) on their heads - are partying openly. In April, police arrested the alleged top recruiter of another cartel, La Familia, at another baptism party held by capos at a resort in the western state of Michoacan.
"This indicates, along with another famous wedding that happened, that they don't have any fear at all of the authorities, none at all," said Samuel Gonzalez, Mexico's former top anti-drug prosecutor. "They are sending a message that they aren't afraid."
Gonzalez was referring to the 2007 wedding of Mexico's most-wanted drug lord Joaquin (El Chapo) Guzman. Police say they raided the town, but got there just a few hours too late.
Investigators say cartel bosses often hold ostentatious parties with the pretext of a wedding or baptism, both to show off their money and to bring lieutenants together to talk business. They are often held in the open air at privately owned ranches, complete with live music and staffs of waiters.
"There is a long tradition of the image as godfathers, but this is also a direct challenge to authorities," said Jose Luis Pineyro, a sociologist at Mexico's Autonomous Metropolitan University who studies the drug trade. "That they can walk around openly in public doesn't just mean they don't care, it means they know the police won't do anything to them."
Mexican authorities call Tuesday's arrest a sign the government is winning the war; after all, Lopez Ibarra was dispatched to Monterrey to reassert the influence of the Beltran-Leyva gang after soldiers arrested its former head of operations there on March 24.
The Mexican army has set up toll-free numbers to receive anonymous tips on criminal activity, and the strategy appears to be working.
"The army is getting a lot more calls than the police now," said Gonzalez.
But traffickers still ride roughshod over corrupt and weak civilian law enforcement agencies.
In the northern state of Zacatecas over the weekend, a squad of armed men wearing police-style uniforms raided a heavily guarded prison and freed 53 suspects, dozens of them linked to the Gulf cartel, without firing a shot.
State officials suspect they had inside help; on Tuesday prosecutors announced that 45 prison guards and the prison warden were under house arrest on suspicion of aiding in the escape. A half-dozen other officers - including local and federal police - also were ordered held.
The soldiers who arrested Lopez Ibarra, his pilot and 12 other suspects also seized 14 guns, a grenade, ammunition, drugs, cash, and a banner warning President Felipe Calderon to "show respect or face the consequences of our people." They were headed to luxury suites in the suburb of San Pedro Garza Garcia, one of Mexico's wealthiest communities, authorities said.
Corruption scandals have blossomed across Mexico recently - in states far from the U.S. border region, where the drug battles have long been concentrated. This weekend in Tapachula, near the Guatemala border, authorities arrested a gang of at least six Gulf cartel assassins, including two women, who were allegedly commanded by top local police officers.
The city's police chief, two commanders and former public safety director also were detained on suspicion of leading the hit gang linked to the Zetas, the alleged enforcers for the Gulf drug cartel. Police and soldiers also seized dozens of grenades and assault rifles during the weekend raid, state prosecutors said.