A man believed to be the leader of the Gulf drug cartel, which controls some of the most valuable and violently contested smuggling routes along the US border, has been arrested by Mexican marines and paraded before the public.
The capture of Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez is a major victory in the military battle against drug trafficking, but it could open a power vacuum and intensify a struggle south of the Texas border in north-east Mexico, a region that has seen some of the most horrific violence in the country's six-year war against rival gangs.
Admiral Jose Luis Vergara, a navy spokesman, said the burly, moustachioed man detained on Wednesday in the Gulf port of Tampico was the 41-year-old capo known as "El Coss". One of Mexico's most-wanted men, Costilla is charged in the US with drug-trafficking and threatening law enforcement officials. US authorities had offered five million dollars for information leading to his arrest.
Clad in a blue checked shirt and bulletproof vest, the suspect was presented along with 10 bodyguards, five with bruised faces and clad in camouflage military fatigues similar to those of the marines who held them captive. The navy also showed dozens of assault weapons, some pistols that appeared gilded and studded with jewels, and several expensive-looking watches seized in the operation.
"This is a very, very important arrest," said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, chairman of the Department of Government at the University of Texas, Brownsville, and an expert on politics and crime in the Gulf Cartel's territory in the state of Tamaulipas.
She said the Gulf Cartel was a vertically-structured organisation dependent on its top leaders, several of whom have been arrested in recent months. Now, she said, she expected a surge in violence between the two remaining dominant cartels in Mexico - the Pacific Coast-based Sinaloa Cartel run by Mexico's most-wanted man, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, and the brutal paramilitary Zetas, the former enforcement arm of the Gulf Cartel.
Admiral Vergara said five of Costilla's guards had been arrested on Wednesday morning in Rio Bravo, Tamaulipas. Another five fled when marines tried to arrest them in Tampico and the chase led authorities to Costilla's hideout, he said.
Costilla shook his head when asked if he had anything to say about the charges against him and when asked if he had a lawyer.
The Matamoros-based Gulf Cartel was once one of Mexico's strongest. While it was badly weakened in recent years by battles with other gangsters and by law-enforcement operations, it smuggled and distributed tons of cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and marijuana into the United States under the leadership of the Cardenas Guillen family, three brothers who took over from one another as their siblings were captured or killed.
Costilla's capture is a significant victory for the marines, who were embarrassed in June after announcing they had nabbed the son of Mexico's top fugitive drug lord. It turned out the man was not the son of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, but rather Felix Beltran Leon, 23, a stocky, baby-faced suspect whose family said he was the father of a toddler and worked with his mother-in-law at a used car dealership. He remains in custody, authorities say, because guns and money were found when he was arrested.