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Saturday, November 6, 2010

Antonio Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen's Death Angers Cartel; Sparks Retaliation

Gunfire Exchanged Near U.S.-Mexico Border After Cartel Leader Is Killed

Gunman and security forces exchanged fire near the U.S.-Mexico border Saturday, one day after a top leader of the Gulf drug cartel was killed, the Mexican state news agency reported.

Authorities in Reynosa, which is across the border from McAllen, Texas, were telling people to avoid road travel, Notimex reported. It also warned of shootouts between gunman and security forces there.

The trouble came one day after Antonio Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen, known as "Tony Tormenta" or "Tony the Storm," was killed in Matamoros, a city to the east of Reynosa.

Cardenas, 48, was a top leader of one of Mexico's major drug-trafficking operations, and the U.S. State Department had been offering a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture.

Saturday, U.S. President Barack Obama called his counterpart in Mexico to express his support for Felipe Calderon's efforts to "end the impunity of organized criminal groups," the White House said in a statement. Obama also reportedly offered his condolences on the death of the Mexican officials who died during the operation.

Naval troops were met with grenades and assault-weapon fire when they approached Cardenas' hideout in the center of the city around 3:30 p.m. Friday (5:30 p.m. ET), the Mexican navy said.

Four other suspected members of the cartel were also killed in the operation, which ended about 5:30 p.m. (7:30 p.m. ET) the navy said. Three naval officers were killed and four others were injured, authorities said.

"Today was another significant step in the destruction of criminal organizations that have done so much to damage the people of this country," said Alejandro Poire, security spokesman for the Mexican government, soon after Friday's clash.

The Gulf cartel is one of Mexico's major drug-trafficking organizations. It is based in Matamoros, which is across the border from Brownsville, Texas. It is also strong in Reynosa.

Both cities are located in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, which has become a bloody battleground between the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel. The Zetas used to be the armed branch of the Gulf Cartel but split off into a separate drug-trafficking organization earlier this year.

Cardenas allegedly began his drug trafficking career during the late 1980s, rose through the ranks of the Gulf cartel and was eventually given control over the Matamoros-Brownsville corridor, the U.S. State Department said. In that role, he has been responsible for shipments of marijuana and cocaine across the border, according to the State Department.

He has been indicted several times by U.S. federal authorities for alleged drug trafficking crimes, including directing drug shipments by boats, planes and cars from Colombia and Venezuela to Guatemala, Mexico and Texas, according to a statement from the U.S. Justice Department last year.

Friday's operation came after more than six months of intelligence gathering, the Mexican navy said. The four others suspected cartel members killed Friday were "part of the circle of protection closest to 'Tony Tormenta,'" the navy said.

The University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College canceled classes through Saturday and said it would rework several weekend events "because of gunfire taking place across the Rio Grande."

Most of the students and faculty members have gone home, said Letty Fernandez, a university spokeswoman. The campus is about half a mile from the U.S.-Mexico border.

More than 28,000 people have died in drug-related violence since Calderon intensified the government's fight against cartels and organized crime after taking office in 2006, according to government figures.

Authorities have scored a string of important wins against drug cartels recently.

In September, officials arrested Sergio Villarreal, known to Mexican officials as "El Grande," an alleged top leader of the Beltran Leyva cartel. His capture came soon after the August arrest of American-born "La Barbie," or Edgar Valdez, thought to be one of Mexico's most ruthless drug traffickers.

Mexico Drug Lord Death May Aid Zeta Cartel's Rise

Rival gunmen blocked roads near the U.S. border and strung up threatening banners on Saturday after marines killed one of Mexico's top kingpins, and Washington reaffirmed its support for the country's drug war.

Gunmen used buses and trucks to block roads in Reynosa, a Gulf cartel stronghold across the border from McAllen, Texas, and west of Matamoros, where marines on Friday shot dead gang leader Ezequiel "Tony Tormenta" Cardenas, or "Tony the Storm."

In an apparent riposte from rivals, gunmen from the Zetas gang hung messages between trees and over bridges in Reynosa and in cities across northeastern Tamaulipas state, mocking Cardenas' death. "Once again, the Gulf traitors' destiny is evident ... there's no place for them, not even in hell," read one banner that was signed, "Sincerely, the Zetas Unit."

The signs, quickly taken down by authorities, reinforced fears that the death of alleged Cardenas will further empower the Zetas, a gang of hit men formed more than a decade ago by renegade Mexican soldiers. It has become one of Mexico's most brutal and feared drug gangs.

Former allies of the Gulf cartel, the Zetas went independent earlier this year, unleashing a turf battle along the northeastern border with the United States that has at times reached the level of all-out war.

Support From U.S.

President Barack Obama called Mexican leader Felipe Calderon on Saturday "to reaffirm United States support for Mexico's efforts to end the impunity of organized criminal groups," the White House said in a statement. Obama also expressed his condolences for the Mexican troops and the reporter killed in the shootouts, according to a White House statement.

More than 31,000 people have been killed across Mexico since December 2006, when Calderon took office and launched his cartel crackdown. The government is under increasing pressure to contain the burgeoning death toll.

Soldiers and federal police across the region quickly broke up the roadblocks in Reynosa and took down the banners. But many residents were still wary of revenge attacks.

Veracruz Public Safety Secretary Sergio Lopez said authorities were not yet sure who put up the poorly written and obscure messages, and could not confirm that they were a reaction to the death of Cardenas Guillen.

Francisco Alor, the attorney general of the Caribbean state of Quintana Roo, said several banners appeared in the resort city of Cancun and he expressed concern that violence in the region could spike.

"We have to prevent any surge (in violence) that the others could generate as they move to control territory amid the power vacuum," Alor told The Associated Press, referring to the Zetas.

Fighting broke out between gunmen and soldiers in Reynosa, and two assailants died on Saturday, newspaper El Norte said.

Some people ventured out on the streets of Matamoros on Saturday, walking past buildings with fresh bullet holes from Friday's gunfights. But the U.S. consulate was closed and its weekend visa services were postponed until further notice.

The Matamoros newspaper El Expreso said on its website that reporter Carlos Guajardo was killed covering one of the shootouts. Local news media reported Guajardo was leaving the area of the clash when his car was hit by gunfire more than 20 times.

Tamaulipas has witnessed some of Mexico's most shocking drug war violence this year, including the murder of a popular gubernatorial candidate — Mexico's highest-level political murder in 16 years — the massacre of 72 migrant workers, bombs hidden in cars and slain youths strung from bridges.

"It's a huge relief to know that Tony Tormenta has been eliminated, his gangsters were everywhere. But we're still worried because they'll find another boss, and who knows what the Zetas will do," said a supermarket worker in Reynosa who gave his name as Oscar.

Another Mayor Slain

Underscoring the widespread nature of the violence, the mayor of a town in the northwestern state of Durango was beaten to death by masked gunmen on Friday, state prosecutors said.

San Bernardo Mayor Jaime Lozoya, who had just taken office and was driving along a highway with aides and his daughter when he was attacked, was one of at least 18 mayors killed in Mexico since 2008. His predecessor fled the town last year after receiving threats from drug gangs.

Gulf kingpin Cardenas' was the fourth top drug baron to be killed or captured in Mexico since December of last year in a string of coups for Calderon's army-led drug war. But beheadings, shootouts and the deaths of innocent bystanders have overshadowed those successes as the war rages.

Cardenas, 48, was the brother of former Gulf cartel leader Osiel Cardenas, who was extradited to Texas in 2007. Known as "Tony Tormenta" or Tony Storm, he had a $5 million bounty on his head in the United States and ran the gang with Jorge Eduardo Costilla, known as "El Coss," who is still at large.

The Gulf cartel, which also has cells across the United States, is pitted against the Zetas across northeastern Mexico. That violence has spread to Mexico's richest city Monterrey, killing an unprecedented 720 people in and around the industrial hub near the Texan border, worrying Washington and investors with factories exporting to the United States.

Zetas Ascending

Drug war experts warned that the Zetas will strengthen as the Gulf cartel weakens.

"Yes, it's another major blow to the one of the most significant Mexican drug cartels," Gary Hale, who retired this year as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and founded the Grupo Savant consulting firm, said of Cardenas Guillen's death.

"But it also bodes an ominous future for the war-weary civilians living in the northeastern part of Mexico," he said in an analysis sent to AP. "The ensuing chaos brought on by the loss of Gulf Cartel leadership will give operational, political and psychological strength to the Zetas."

Even before their split from the Gulf cartel, the Zetas started growing into a powerful gang in their own right. Their reach extends into Central America, where authorities have dismantled Zetas training camps, and their illegal activity ranges from drug trafficking to migrant smuggling, kidnapping and extortion.

Hale warned that the Zetas, in their push to assert dominance over northeastern Mexico, are likely to increase "their traditional organized crime activities such as extortion of businesses of all sorts, kidnappings for ransom, an increase in taxation ... for drugs crossing into the U.S. from Mexico."

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Sources: CNN, Google Maps

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