News | 5 years ago
Mexican crime wars: The Beltran Leyva cartel
Mexican authorities have just arrested suspected crime kingpin Sergio Villarreal Barragan. JOE takes a look at the rutheless crime cartel that brought him to prominence.

Warring Mexican drug families have been hitting headlines, most recently with the arrest of suspected cartel kingpin Sergio Villarreal Barragan. Here is the back-story of the Leyva cartel – one of the most lethal organised crime gangs in Mexico.

By Robert Carry

This weekend Mexican navy marines swooped on alleged crime boss Sergio Villarreal Barragan, aka 'El Grande', who the authorities claim is the leader of one of the biggest and most ruthless crime families in the country.

The arrest was the latest blow in a vicious conflict between drugs gangs and Mexican authorities that has claimed more than 28,000 lives since 2006.

The Beltran Leyva Cartel, which has a hold on drug production, trafficking extortion, human smuggling, kidnapping and a range of other gang-related activities around swathes of the country, has been very much in the thick of the conflict.


The cartel was founded by four brothers – Marcos Arturo, Carlos, Alfredo and Héctor, in a rural Mexican town in the 1960s. The group rose to prominence through building links with another crime family, the Sinola Cartel. The alliance gave the brothers the space to build their empire and by 2008, the brothers posed a major threat to their former allies. When one of the brothers, Alfredo, was arrested, the rest of the family blamed the Sinola cartel and conflict broke out between the two sides.


Both cartels formed new alliances with other crime groups and faced off along key smuggling routes near the US border. Thousands have since been killed and many settlements have turned into ghost towns, such is the level of violence. Hundreds of mass graves, often filled with the decapitated or mutilated remains of gang members, have been turning up across the Mexican countryside.

In an even more brutal turn of events, gangs have taken to hanging bodies from bridges as a means of intimidating each other and demonstrating their complete control over parts of the country.

The Beltran Leyva gang has been fighting a war on another front – against the Mexican authorities. Mexican president Felipe Calderon launched a crackdown on the drug cartels in December 2006, backed by some 50,000 police and army personnel. The move has triggered a bloody conflict that has seen thousands killed and arrested.


The brothers and the other cartels have struck back by exploiting low police pay, political corruption and by using intimidation to infiltrate Mexico's political, judicial and police institutions. The insiders have been able to feed classified information about anti-drug operations to the family, allowing figures to thwart police and military operations against them.

However, the tide looks to have turned against the Beltran Leyva cartel over recent years. First, Arturo Beltran Leyva, the top leader of the cartel, was killed during a raid close to Mexico City in December of last year. Next, Mexican federal police captured high-ranking figure Edgar Valdez Villarreal.

In the latest turn of events, ‘El Grande’, was arrested in a swoop involving 30 Navy marines, five vehicles and a helicopter. It is being hailed as a major blow to the cartel, which is fast running out of leaders. He now faces a string of drug trafficking and organised crime charges.

But despite the successful arrest, it is unlikely to trigger an end to the violence that has blighted parts of Mexico in recent years.