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Key leader in Mexico drug cartel arrested

MEXICO CITY—A man described as a key leader of the violent Gulf Cartel has been arrested as part of a widening crackdown on drug trafficking in northeast Mexico, federal authorities announced Tuesday.

The announcement of the bust in the state of Tamaulipas, which borders the United States, came the day after Mexican soldiers detained more than 100 local police officers in the neighboring state of Nuevo Leon for questioning about suspected ties to drug traffickers.

The operations are part of a series of efforts pushed by President Felipe Calderon aimed at stemming the country's increasingly violent war between drug cartels.

The bloodshed continues: Monday alone, nearly two dozen bodies were found across Mexico—some charred, others stuffed in garbage bags—in violence thought to be associated with drugs.

Federal agents arrested Juan Oscar "Las Barbas" Garza Azuara and four others Monday evening as they arrived at a nightclub known as Fifty-Seven in the city of Reynosa, across the border from McAllen, Texas.

The Mexican attorney general's offices charged that Garza was responsible primarily for money laundering but that he also ran logistics for key drug-distribution routes that head into the United States through Reynosa.

Authorities said Garza was one of a dozen or so lieutenants who'd been running the Gulf Cartel since its leader, Osiel Cardenas, was extradited to the United States in January.

Bruce Bagley, a drug-war specialist and professor at the University of Miami, described Garza as "quite violent and ruthless." But Bagley said it was unlikely that his arrest would stem the drug carnage. "There are many of these guys waiting in the wings," he said.

With billions of dollars in sales on the line, the Gulf Cartel has been battling another drug gang, the Sinaloa cartel, over control of trafficking routes into the United States. That means control of the lucrative border crossing at Nuevo Laredo in Tamaulipas, where 40 percent of the legal goods from Mexico cross into the United States.

Steve Robertson, a spokesman in Washington for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, called Garza's arrest significant but declined further comment. It was unclear whether U.S. authorities would seek his extradition.

Also detained: Garza's girlfriend Mayra Pedraza Sanchez, his brother and sister, Josue Garza and Cantalicia Garza, and another man, Jaime Nunez Mendoza. Cantalicia Garza managed the group's finances, authorities alleged.

Local news reports said the nightclub's opening was supposed to take place Saturday with a performance by Gloria Trevi, the Mexican singing star who spent five years in Brazilian and Mexican prisons before she was acquitted of charges that she helped lure underage girls into illicit sex.

Agents seized the nightclub and seven vehicles, including a 2004 Nissan Armada with a Texas license plate and a 2004 Grand Cherokee registered in Virginia.

All five of those arrested—handcuffed and guarded by masked federal agents—were shown to reporters at a news conference in Mexico City. The attorney general's office declined to say what charges they faced.

Three of those arrested had criminal histories in the United States, officials said, though it wasn't clear which ones.

Authorities said the Gulf cell in Reynosa was protected by Los Zetas, a notorious group of former soldiers who serve as cartel henchmen.

On Monday, more than 100 police officers were detained in several towns in Nuevo Leon, a violence-ravaged state that's also on the Texas border.

Authorities said Garza's arrest and the detentions of the officers were unrelated except that both were part of "Operation Nuevo Leon-Tamaulipas," an effort to crack down on drug dealers in the U.S.-Mexico border region.

On Tuesday morning, local, state and federal officers—acting on a tip—detained seven armed men who'd engaged in a gun battle at a motel in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, near the entrance to the highway to Reynosa.

The men carried badges from the attorney general's office and Nuevo Leon police, the national daily newspaper El Universal reported on its Web site. Authorities were checking to see whether the credentials were real.

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(Ovalle reports for The Miami Herald.)

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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