MEXICO CITY — Federal police used a seemingly routine traffic checkpoint to nab Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, the alleged drug cartel boss accused by Mexico’s government of turning the border city of Juarez into one of the deadliest places on the planet.
Over the course of an 11-month investigation, agents identified two homes in the northern city of Torreon that Carrillo Fuentes was believed to have visited discreetly as well as a vehicle he used to get around town.
They used that information to narrow down his movements, and on Oct. 9 set up the checkpoint. The purported Juarez Cartel boss presented a false driver’s license at first but later acknowledged his real identity, National Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido said. No shots were fired in the brief operation.
Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam called the arrest “a capture of great importance.”
Authorities say Carrillo Fuentes, 51, heads the cartel founded by his late brother, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, and both the U.S. and Mexico offered multi-million-dollar rewards for his arrest.
Better known as “The Viceroy” or “The General,” he took over control of the Juarez gang after Amado, nicknamed “The Lord of the Skies,” died in 1997 in a botched cosmetic surgery. Amado got his nickname by flying planeloads of drugs into the United States.
It was the second capture of a major cartel figure in as many weeks. Mexican authorities arrested Hector Beltran Leyva as he ate fish tacos in a seafood restaurant in central Mexico on Oct. 1. He headed a cartel named for his family.
President Enrique Pena Nieto’s administration has captured a string of high-profile capos since taking office nearly two years ago, the biggest of them being the arrest last February of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the elusive boss of the powerful Sinaloa Cartel.
Since Pena Nieto took office nearly two years ago, almost all the old-style narco-Mafia bosses including the top leadership of the Sinaloa, Zetas, Gulf, Beltran Leyva and Juarez cartels have been arrested or killed. All were in power for years and in their 40s and 50s, and the only major old-timer left is Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, 66, of the Sinaloa Cartel.
But as the major organizations have been broken up, smaller and more violent bands have taken their place, causing a spike in other kinds of crime that more directly affect citizens, such as kidnapping and extortion.
A case in point is the recent forced disappearance of 43 teachers college students in the southern state of Guerrero, where corrupt police have been charged along with members of the Guerreros Unidos, an offshoot from the breakup of the Beltran Leyva gang.
Carrillo Fuentes had a $5 million reward on his head from U.S. authorities and $2.2 million in Mexico. He faces a forty-six count indictment in Texas charging him with, among other things, trafficking in cocaine and marijuana, money laundering and murder in furtherance of a continuing criminal enterprise, according to the U.S. State Department.
He was arrested along with a suspected bodyguard, and both were flown to Mexico City. Handcuffed and hunched over in jeans and a blue shirt, Carrillo Fuentes was shown being marched across the wet tarmac to a waiting helicopter.
The Drug Enforcement Administration congratulated Mexico.
“Carrillo Fuentes … facilitated murder and violence in Mexico while fueling addiction in the United States and across the world,” DEA Administrator Michele M. Leonhart said in a statement.
Carrillo Fuentes carried out trafficking on a more modest scale than his brother, but in a much more violent era for the cartel. Based in Ciudad Juarez across from El Paso, Texas, he led the gang in a battle with Sinaloa Cartel interlopers for control of trafficking routes in an area where as much as 70 percent of cocaine entering the U.S. passes through.
The result was a multi-year war that cost at least 8,000 lives.
“The criminal organization (Carrillo Fuentes) led up until today promoted in Chihuahua state the building of diverse groups that made Juarez, at the time, one of the cities considered among the most violent in the world,” Rubido said.
In recent years the violence in Juarez has dropped dramatically. The Mexican government cites better police work and more social programs, while some say it was because of a truce between the Juarez and Sinaloa cartels.
Gustavo de la Rosa, a long-time Ciudad Juarez human rights activist, said it will be difficult to tell the impact of the arrest on the city. The Juarez Cartel has controlled two local gangs, La Linea and Los Aztecas, which could unite to form a stronger gang, or fight each other for leadership.
“It could drop the violence or increase it,” he said.
By Peter Orsi. AP writers E. Eduardo Castillo and Mark Stevenson in Mexico City contributed to this report