A Drug Lord Dies, But Mexico's War Goes On

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One of Mexico's most-wanted drug lords was killed Friday in a fierce gun battle with Mexican marines. Antonio Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen, also known as "Tony Tormenta," was shot dead in the city of Matamoros, across the border from Brownsville, Texas. Host Scott Simon talks to NPR's John Burnett about the potential impact of Cardenas Guillen's death on the drug war.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Mexican marines moved yesterday against one of the country's most wanted drug lords. For hours troops exchanged fire with gunmen in the city of Matamoros, right across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas. At the end of the day, Mexican authorities said that they had killed Antonio Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen and proclaimed his death another meaningful step toward the dismantling of criminal groups. NPR's John Burnett is covering this story, joins us from Austin, Texas. John, thanks for being with us.

JOHN BURNETT: Morning, Scott.

SIMON: And who's this man who was killed and what did he allegedly do?

BURNETT: Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen was the 48-year-old leader of the Gulf Cartel. He was one of the big fish, one of the big drug lords who leads one of Mexico's seven major drug cartels. He was better known by Tony Tormenta, which means Tony the Storm. He was in charge of smuggling operations in Matamoros, which is right across the border from Brownsville, Texas up in Mexico's northeast corner - key smuggling corridor.

There was a $5 million reward on his head in the U.S.; $2 million in Mexico. And his brother, Osiel Cardenas - was the former head of the Gulf Cartel - he's now sitting in U.S. federal prison doing 25 years.

SIMON: And tell us about this gun battle, because apparently it had people in Matamoros holed up for hours.

BURNETT: Yeah, I mean, even by the scale of Mexico's spectacularly gruesome drug war, this was a hell of a gunfight. A hundred and fifty Mexican marines, three helicopters, 17 military vehicles and hours-long battle. They closed the international bridge between Matamoros and Brownsville briefly. The campus of University of Texas at Brownsville even shut down because of the fear of bullets flying across the river.

The media in Matamoros could not report on the conflict, typically because they are cowed into acquiescence by the drug cartels, and so people started using Twitter and Facebook, sending messages like take shelter, don't leave your houses. A journalist for a newspaper in Matamoros, El Expreso, was killed as he was driving through - got caught in the crossfire.

And, of course, this is also not the first time this has happened because there's been a running turf battle between the Gulf Cartel and their former enforcers, the Zeta Cartel, in Matamoros for a couple of years.

SIMON: And John, can you project what impact this killing might have, if any, in this ongoing war with drug cartels?

BURNETT: Well, there's an old saying in Mexico, Scott, about this drug cartel war, that when you cut off the brains the thugs take over. And while Mexico has had some notable successes in killing and arresting some major figures in the drug war in the last year, the practical effect is that once these capos are killed, many lieutenants of theirs then start battling for ascendance in the organizations. And so there's actually more violence that it causes. Although these are prizes and the U.S. is very pleased and sometimes they're extradited, in the end it can often lead to even more drug violence.

SIMON: NPR's John Burnett speaking with us this morning from Austin, Texas. John, thanks so much for being with us.

BURNETT: It's my pleasure.

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