Mexico Captures Reputed Drug Lord 'La Barbie'

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Mexico has captured Edgar Valdez Villarreal, an alleged drug trafficker known as "La Barbie." Valdez, 37, was born in Laredo, Texas, and has been battling for control in the Beltran Leyva cartel — which lost its former boss, Arturo Beltran Leyva, in December 2009. NPR's Melissa Block talks to Jason Buch, a reporter at the San Antonio Express-News.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

He was a high school football player in Laredo, Texas, nicknamed La Barbie for his light hair and good looks. Now, he's been arrested by Mexican police as one of that country's most wanted drug traffickers.

Edgar Valdez Villarreal was captured yesterday. He's been indicted in U.S. district court on charges he distributed thousands of pounds of cocaine.

Earlier this year, Jason Buch of the San Antonio Express-News wrote a lengthy profile of Valdez Villarreal titled "South Texan May Be the Next Drug King." And Jason Buch joins us now.

Jason, what was the extent of Valdez Villarreal's control of the drug empire in Mexico before his arrest?

Mr. JASON BUCH (Reporter, San Antonio Express-News): Well, he was in contention with his former boss's brother. His boss had been Arturo Beltran Leyva, who had at one point been a high-ranking figure in the Sinaloa Cartel and that had split off to form his own organization.

Arturo Beltran Leyva was killed at the end of last year, and so Valdez Villarreal was in a fight to take over that organization.

BLOCK: And would he be the only U.S. citizen to have climbed that high in the drug hierarchy in Mexico?

Mr. BUCH: Yes. There had been another U.S. citizen in the Gulf Cartel during the early '90s who was running the organization, but at this time, Valdez Villarreal was the only U.S. citizen that high up in the cartel ranks.

BLOCK: Let's talk a bit about his reputation in Mexico. There is a whole genre of songs in Mexico called narco-corridos, songs that celebrate drug kingpins. And let's play a little bit of the song that extols Mr. Valdez Villarreal. Here it is.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing in foreign language).

BLOCK: And we should say, Jason, there's an extremely grisly, horrific video that goes along with this jaunty song. What's he - what are they singing about here?

Mr. BUCH: Well, at first they're talking about all his nicknames. They're saying that he's The Tiger or The Doll. And then later on in the song, they start to brag about how intelligent he is and what a good businessman he is.

BLOCK: Well, how did he go from being a high school football player in Laredo, Texas, to a drug kingpin in Mexico?

Mr. BUCH: Well, I talked to people who said that he was selling small amounts of pot in high school. I talked to law enforcement, who said that he actually got his start stealing cars in the U.S. and selling them in Mexico.

That's a pretty easy entry point because that would put him in touch with people in Mexico. From there, he apparently began moving drugs through Nuevo Laredo and Laredo and eventually, in the early 2000s, ended up in Monterrey and the Mexican state of Nuevo Leone, which is an industrial city south of Nuevo Laredo, where he got in with the Beltran Leyva organization.

BLOCK: When you wrote your profile for the paper in San Antonio, there were people in Laredo who were too afraid to talk to you about La Barbie because of his reputation for violence.

Mr. BUCH: Yes. And that's pretty standard along the border, just - it's not worth the effort to try to talk about these people, however unlikely it is that you could get hurt because of it.

Yeah, he hasn't had a presence in Laredo for some time, but in 2004, 2005 and 2006, he was prosecuting the Sinaloa Cartel's war for control of drug trafficking lanes in the area. And during that time, the number of homicides in Nuevo Laredo nearly tripled, to 200, and in Laredo doubled to about 20 a year.

BLOCK: And there had been a manhunt underway to try to find Valdez Villarreal for some time. How was he finally caught?

Mr. BUCH: The Mexican government said that they picked him up in the Mexican state of Mexico, which is outside Mexico City. They'd been on his tail apparently for a while. Most of the arrests in the area he controlled along Mexico's Southern Pacific Coast had been of people in his organization over the last few months, and most of the killings, as well.

BLOCK: And will the U.S. be seeking the extradition so that he'll stand trial in the U.S., not in Mexico?

Mr. BUCH: It seems likely. That's what's been happening with the cartel figures captured since President Felipe Calderon took office in Mexico.

There have been issues with high-level cartel figures in Mexican prisons sort of skirting justice, living happily in a well-furnished prison cell. So there will be pressure to get into the U.S.

Also the Houston Chronicle had a story this morning speaking with Valdez Villarreal's lawyer, and this lawyer said he was concerned that Valdez Villarreal would be tortured if he were to stay in Mexico for any significant amount of time and actually wanted to have him brought to the U.S.

BLOCK: Okay, I've been talking with Jason Buch of the San Antonio Express-News about the arrest yesterday of Edgar Valdez Villarreal, an alleged drug lord in Mexico. Jason, thanks very much.

Mr. BUCH: Thanks for having me.

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