Mexico: kingpin Arturo Beltrán Leyva killed in shoot-out

Special forces from the Mexican army and navy killed one of the country’s top drug kingpins, Arturo Beltrán Leyva, in a firefight in Cuernavaca late Dec. 16. Beltrán Leyva, who was also wanted in the US, was the highest-level drug lord killed since President Felipe Calderón launched his offensive against the cartels in December 2006. Some 400 troops surrounded his apartment in a luxury complex, sparking a two-hour gun battle, in which Beltrán Leyva’s henchmen—known as the “Fuerzas Armadas de Arturo”—responded with automatic weapons and grenades. Six of the the henchmen were killed, one as he jumped from a window, as well as one member of the navy’s Special Forces.

Beltran Leyva was a top kingpin of the Sinaloa Cartel, until he split after a betrayal by Mexico’s most wanted trafficker Joaquin Guzmán AKA “Shorty” led to the arrest of his brother Alfredo Beltrán Leyva in January 2008. In recent months, he had carried out a wave of increasingly gruesome reprisals against rivals, leaving decapitated heads and mutilated corpses with notes left from “el Jefe de Jefes,” the boss of bosses. Mexican naval intelligence had been attempting to track him down for weeks. Six days before the shoot-out, naval forces raided a party Beltrán Leyva had planned to attend, but he managed to escape. With information from that raid, they tracked him to the Altitude luxury condominium development near the center of Cuernavaca.

Calderón called Beltrán Leyva’s death “a convincing blow against one of the most dangerous criminal organizations in Mexico and on the continent.” The US State Department issued a similarly worded statement, calling the slaying a “significant blow.” DEA deputy administrator Michele M. Leonhart implied a role for her agency in the hit, citing an “exchange of information between the police authorities in the United States and our brave partners in Mexico.” (Quote translated back into English from Spanish translation.)

But the Morelos State Human Rights Commission blasted military authorities for not taking sufficient measures to protect the civil population of Cuernavaca, and asserted that one by-stander had been killed. Mortally wounded in the cross-fire, he died ten hours later in hospital—so his death was not included in the initial toll reported in the media.

Police forces are on high alert across several states in central Mexico in anticipation of retaliatory attacks. (NYT, Reuters, Milenio, El Semanario, Excelsior, El Universal, Informador, Dec. 17)

The slaying came the day after the US delivered five Bell 412 helicopters to Mexico for transport and reconnaissance in the fight against cartels. The aircraft are part of more than $604 million worth of vehicles and equipment that the US is slated to turn over to Mexico in the coming months under the $1.4 billion Merida Initiative. (AP, Dec. 15)

See our last posts on Mexico and the narco wars.

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  1. I live at Cuernavaca
    I live at Cuernavaca Morelos, MEXICO, I was a witness of the shutting, there were at least 400 military elements, one big helicopter from the navy and many many soldiers everywhere when the shutting started, it was a living inferno for all the people that were close to that area since we could hear the grenades, gun shots and no kind of warning no where!! It was really dangerous just because we had no clue of where to go! The shutting at some point was endless, we just couldn’t move any where because we didn’t know if the shutting was in a specific place or all over the area which at the end it was!!

    I feel absolutely terrified because of the incoming war in my country , there will be a war in the drug cartels in order to see who get the control of it after the boss of bosses is dead and a second war just to take revenge of the fallen lord of drugs. We have no option but to continue with this fight and get stronger in every possible way as a country.

    I believe that maybe there might be the need of new laws all over the world!! laws that take in consideration these big issue that drugs are all around the world.

    1. Cuernavaca witness
      I live directly in front of the apartment in which Beltran was killed. Around 6 that evening I was on my way home from work when my wife called and said something big was going on in the apartment complex across the pool from us. I arrived home at around 7 o’clock into our complex which is called Habitat which is a sister complex to Altitude and is directly in front of the other complex. We ate dinner and looked out our window at what was going on across from us. As a major army or police presence is nothing new we where not real concerned. As the weather is always great in Cuernavaca our apartment and those of on the other side are almost totally glass on the front sides which face the pool. We watched as the army (now we know it was the marines) went door to door in one part of the complex across but just to the right of us. We stood at the window and watched and even took some pictures. Around 8:30 my wife’s cell phone rang in our bedroom and she went in to talk with our youngest daughter. Five minutes into the conversation gunfire erupted. We dropped to the floor of our bedroom apartment on which the front side is totally glass and crawled into our interior bathroom which is the only part of the complex without large windows. The initial battle probably consisted of over 1,000 rounds being exchanged between the cartel members and the army or police. It was a virtual war zone and we cowered on the floor for 2 and a half hours was the battle raged. During the initial gunfire we knew it was very close to use as the sound of shots and bullets echoed everywhere around us. We did not know what was going on or what to do. We heard machine gun fire but worst of all was the grenades that went off. I knew when I heard the explosions they were either grenades or thought maybe the army had launched mortar. As our complex was directly in the line as the cartel member fired out at the army. The worse was no matter what they say about evacuating they only evacuated the other Altitude complex and did nothing or told us nothing in the Habitat complex. As when the shooting started we immediately fell to the floor and dropped everything our cell phone with our Mexican friends numbers was in the living room and we could not venture out to get it. After 1 hour of intense gun fire we seemed to have a brief reprise, but we continued to lie on the bathroom floor as not a single siren was heard. After perhaps ten minutes the battles seemed to go in several different directions and we heard machine gun burst behind us and then several more explosions. You tell there were high powered rifles being fired as well as pistols and machine guns. We where more scared with this gunfire as it seemed to totally surround us in every direction. Still no sirens or no clues as to what was going on. We in fact thought the army was being attacked from both sides and that they were probably losing the battle. At around 10:30 the gunfire stopped and we continued to lie on the floor for another hour before I crawled out to the other room to find my phone and call a coworker that lives in Cuernavaca to see if he could give us any information. He said it appeared the battle was over and that a major drug dealer had been killed. He said the recommendation he had heard was stay in your house until morning and that the army would go door to door to evacuate. We grabbed our passports, wallets and computers and sat them next to us and waited. Nothing happened. At around 11:30 we turned on the TV and saw our complex and the other in the news and heard that 6 had been killed all cartel members. We waited through the night for the army with no sleep and did not venture outside the bathroom or an interior bedroom that had a small window. In the mean time I found my computer and found the first report on the internet which was in English and which gave a brief description of what happened. At around 7:30 the next morning a knock came on our door and two of our security guards said it was alright to come out. We looked out our balcony and saw a few police walking around across form us. As it was just getting light we looked where they had been going door to door and could see that there were a few bullet holes in a couple of apartments and that the windows (actually floor to ceiling sliding glass doors) were broken on one complex. Later my wife said look here. An apartment on the second floor (which in Mexico was actually the third floor) directly across from us has all the windows and parts of the walls totally destroyed. The apartment above it also had windows shot out and was partially destroyed. Our heart rates were finally starting to return to normal as we did not really know if we would survive the night. I called the headquarters of the company I work for and told them I feared for my person safety and did not know what to do in the next few hours. We looked out and saw the gardener for the complex was now working outside and ventured out next to our pool. We found that four apartments out of 44 in our building had residents in them during the night. One is quoted elsewhere in a CBS story confirming we had no warning. As we speak English and only a little Spanish we were at a severe disadvantage to others in finding out what was going on. We saw one neighbor who had his bag packed and was leaving and then talked with other we are friends with who said they were going to Mexico City to stay. Other neighbors who have three children ranging from 5, 12 and 14 were on their balcony looking out at the scene. We then saw one of the glass doors of the building next to us was destroyed. I had heard it burst during one of the explosions and had known it was close. At the time I thought maybe it was a mortar but felt it was a grenade. As the complexes have gas stoves and water heaters I wondered during the intense battle if the apartments would catch on fire with so much gunfire and explosions. After looking around a little more we saw several bullet holes in our complex and the glass doors in the apartment two under us had been broken by bullets. We were starting to calm down and were thinking of staying until we were scheduled to leave for our Christmas vacations back to the US on Saturday when again a helicopter started circling the building and again many army personnel started milling about. Supposedly they were coming to retrieve the bodies. This set off a new wave of fear as we thought perhaps cartel members would come to retrieve them. We packed in two minutes, found a flight leaving that afternoon for the US and left. We grabbed several newspapers to find out what we could, but let me tell you I was never so happy to return to the US. I have worked in Mexico for a couple of years and lived there for one. I will return to help the company find my replacement but cannot stay with the violence that has such a grip on the country. In the past Cuernavaca was considered safer than Mexico City where I work and I had felt safe in the town. With this happening and its direct effect on us I now know it will be hard to escape the violence racking the country no matter where you are. I have a coworker that was robbed a gunpoint whose car, telephone and computer where all stolen when he was confronted in his car this year. I talked with him and he had said he felt safe in Cuernavaca where he lives as well but now did not know if anywhere was safe. I feel lucky in that I can leave and return to the US, but my coworkers who are Mexican will have to survive and fear for their and their families’ safety as they cannot just pack up and leave. It is a shame as there are many good, hardworking people who are caught with no means to escape not only the violence or the poverty that racks the country due to the corruption and mismanagement of the country. My hope is that Calderon came win the battle against corruption and the cartels, but he will have to do it without one American and his wife helping to support the local economy.