CUERNAVACA, Mexico — Two hundred sailors raided an upscale apartment complex and killed a reputed Mexican drug cartel chief in a two-hour gunbattle, one of the biggest victories yet in President Felipe Calderon’s drug war.
Arturo Beltran Leyva, the “boss of bosses,” and three members of his cartel were slain in the shootout Wednesday in Cuernavaca, just south of Mexico City, according to a navy statement.
A fifth cartel member committed suicide during the shootout.
Cartel gunmen hurled grenades that injured three sailors, the navy said. An Associated Press reporter at the scene heard at least 10 explosions.
During the gunbattle, sailors went door-to-door to evacuate residents of the apartment complex, according to a woman who said she was speaking by cellphone to her husband inside. She would not give her name out of fear for her safety.
Beltran Levya is the highest-ranking figure taken down under Calderon, who has deployed more than 45,000 troops across Mexico to crush the cartels since December 2006.
Mexico’s navy often has been used in the battle as well. The offensive has earned Calderon praise from Washington even as 14,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence.
Speaking from the Copenhagen climate summit, Calderon called the raid “an important achievement for the government and people of Mexico.”
The last time Mexican authorities killed a major drug lord was in 2002.
Beltran Levya was one of five brothers who split from the Sinaloa cartel several years ago and aligned themselves with Los Zetas, a group of former soldiers hired by the rival Gulf cartel as hit men.
The split is believed to have fuelled much of the bloodshed of recent years.
One of the brothers, Alfredo Beltran Leyva, was arrested in January 2008.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says the Beltran Leyva cartel is key in the importation and distribution of tonnes of cocaine in the United States, as well as large quantities of heroin. Mexico considers the group one of its six major cartels.
The Mexican government had listed Arturo Beltran Leyva as one of its 24 most-wanted drug lords and had offered a $2.1 million reward for his capture.
Born in the Pacific coast state of Sinaloa, the Beltran Leyva brothers worked side by side with Joaquin (El Chapo) Guzman, the leader of the Sinaloa cartel, before they broke away after Gulf cartel leader Osiel Cardenas was arrested in 2003. They soon seized the lucrative drug routes in northeastern Mexico.
U.S. officials say the Beltran Leyva cartel has carried out heinous killings, including numerous beheadings. The gang also has had great success in buying off public officials, police and others to protect their business and get tips on planned military raids.
The U.S government added Beltran Leyva and his cartel to the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act last year, a movement that denied him access to the U.S. financial system.
The state of Morelos, where Cuernavaca is located, and neighbouring Guerrero have seen a spike in violence in recent months, with dozens of people killed. Some of the mutilated bodies have appeared with pieces of paper signed “boss of bosses,” Beltran Leyva’s nickname.
Mexican authorities have been steadily closing in on the Beltran Levya over the past year, raiding lavish parties thrown by cartel leaders even while they were on the run.
In one of the biggest blows to the gang, several top federal law enforcement officials were arrested in late 2008 for allegedly protecting and leaking confidential information to the cartel. They included former Mexican drug czar Noe Ramirez.
On Friday, sailors raided a party at mansion in the mountain down of Tepotzlan, near Cuernavaca, where they killed three alleged Beltran Leyva cartel members and detained 11.
They also detained Ramon Ayala, a Texas-based norteno singer whose band was playing at the party, on suspicion of ties to organized crime. His lawyer, Adolfo Vega, denied Ayala had ties to the Beltran Leyva gang, saying the singer didn’t know his clients were drug traffickers.
In May, soldiers arrested one of Beltran Leyva’s lieutenants, Rodolfo Lopez Ibarra, as he stepped off a plane in the northern city of Monterrey — fresh from a baptism party hosted by Beltran Leyva himself in Acapulco.
Months earlier, soldiers had arrested the deputy police chief of the resort town of Zihuatenejo who was allegedly protecting 14 Beltran Leyva members at a cock fight.
Mexico’s drug gangs have fought against Calderon’s crackdown with brutal attacks against security forces.
On Wednesday, the severed heads of six state police investigators were found on a public plaza in the northern Mexican state of Durango.