MEXICO CITY — Last week's killing of the top drug lord in the Gulf Cartel marked the second takedown of a major capo in Mexico in a little over two months.
And it raised a question: Why doesn't Mexico kill or capture more of the top narcotics cartel barons destabilizing the country?
In law enforcement circles, this is known as the "kingpin strategy," the aim being to decapitate major narcotics syndicates battling one another and threatening the state.
Experts in Mexico and the United States say the strategy also has a real downside. The costs are illustrated by what has happened in Matamoros, across the border from Brownsville in Texas, since the killing last Friday of Gulf Cartel leader Antonio Cardenas Guillen.
Rather than calming Matamoros, Cardenas' death may unleash a power struggle among underlings within the Gulf Cartel, a top Mexican security official has warned.
"In the short term, this will certainly create instability inside criminal organizations," Alejandro Poire, the spokesman for the National Security Council, told the Televisa network.
Bomb threats apparently linked to Cardenas' death forced the closure Monday of hundreds of schools and the evacuation of a hospital in Matamoros.
Still, the killing of Cardenas, coming a little more than two months after the capture of Edgar Villarreal Valdez, a drug lord known as "La Barbie," gave a palpable boost to President Felipe Calderon, whose popularity has sagged over the nearly 30,000 deaths in the drug war since he came to office in late 2006.
With the death of the Gulf Cartel leader, "the state is sending the message to these groups and to society that it will use all its firepower to go after them.... That's a valuable message," said Sigrid Arzt, a former top security adviser to Calderon.
Some U.S. experts caution that there will be more bloodshed when drug barons are neutralized. As cartels break apart, counter-drug agents will struggle to track the numerous underlings fighting to emerge as chief.
"When we did 'kingpin' in Colombia, it atomized the drug trade. It is sexy. It does hurt them. But is it a strategic blow? I don't think so," said a former senior U.S. intelligence official speaking on condition of anonymity in a recent interview in Washington because his new employer did not authorize him to speak publicly.
A scholar on narcotics trafficking groups, Bruce M. Bagley of the University of Miami, called the kingpin strategy "absolutely a good thing."
In Colombia in the 1990s, the arrest and killing of capos weakened the Medellin and Cali cartels and smuggling groups such as Valle del Norte and Milenio and left in their wake "more than 300 organizations, all of which are at a much lower level of capability and threat to the state," Bagley said.
Bagley acknowledged that killing kingpins could add to the number of targets.
"There's a kind of tradeoff," he said. "It's harder to get these guys, and many of them are lower level, so even if you get them you don't get the distribution network because they are so atomized."
"But look, they are far less of a threat. They are unable to bribe at the national level," he said. "They are unwilling to take on the military or police as we saw in Colombia or that we're seeing in Mexico. All things considered, there are problems with any strategy but atomizing is far better than allowing these hugely powerful groups."
Despite the massive bloodletting from the drug war, Calderon has chalked up some noticeable successes against capos since late 2009.
On Dec. 16, Mexican marines killed Arturo Beltran Leyva, kingpin of a breakaway cartel from the Sinaloa Federation, leading to a spate of beheadings and killings by his brother and another former lieutenant battling each other.
Nearly a month later, police captured a top Tijuana Cartel chief, Teodoro "El Teo" Garcia Simental, a ruthless capo known for employing a hit man called the "soup maker" who confessed to dissolving hundreds of bodies in acid for him.
The Aug. 30 capture of Villarreal, the Mexican-American who got his nickname of "La Barbie" because of his fair complexion, gave another boost to Calderon. Mexico is interrogating Villarreal and may eventually send him to stand trial in the United States, where he is wanted in three states.
Some of Mexico's most renowned drug lords run free, however, including the two top bosses of the mighty Sinaloa Federation, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, the nation's most wanted kingpins.
Mexican security forces have established specialized elite units tracking the two men, but are frequently several steps behind them, officials said.
Bagley said he doesn't doubt that Calderon wants to nab Guzman.
"For Calderon, it would be the crowning event of his government," Bagley said.
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