On the evening of Wednesday, October 1st, Mexican security forcescaptured Hector Beltran Leyva, head of the Beltran Leyva Cartel. The arrest will likely be the final nail in the coffin for this moribund cartel, but a plethora of other criminal syndicates continue to operate throughout the country.
While, President Enrique Peña Nieto can pat himself on the back for a successful operation, Mexican security forces must balance two objectives: achieving tangible results in the war against cartels, while also respecting the rights of Mexican citizens. In Mexico, achieving such a balance is harder than it appears.
The Beltran Leyva cartel broke off from the Sinaloa Cartel in 2008.Hector’s brother Arturo(AKA “El Jefe de los Jefes”) led the organization until he was eliminated by the Mexican military in 2009. Hector, also known as “El H,” then took control of the organization until his recent arrest. The future of the cartel is now uncertain since two other Beltran Leyva brothers are already in prison – including Alfredo (AKA “Fireant”) who was a top lieutenant of the Sinaloa cartel until his arrest in January 2008.
For 11 months, Mexican security forces searched for Hector as part of “Operation Hotel,” he was finally located in the Mexican state of Queretaro, where he was posing as an entrepreneur. The 49-year-old was captured last Wednesday during the evening hours while he dined at a seafood restaurant in Guanajuato state. According to reports, the Mexican Army managed to arrest him without firing a single shot.
President Peña Nieto was quick to report this achievement via social media. On October 1st, he tweeted “Thanks to the joint effort of the armed forces, the attorney general and the federal police, andCISEN[a Mexican intelligence agency], we have detained [Leyva].”
The broader picture
The arrest of Beltran Leyva can be analyzed from three different points of view.
First of all, the capture of “El H” foreshadows the likely disintegration of the Beltran Leyva cartel in the near future. The cartel has had a short but violent lifespan since it originally broke apart from Sinaloa in 2009. The new group quickly became known for its ruthlessness as it engaged in a turf war with Sinaloa; additionally, it successfully profited from drug trafficking. Hence, it is no surprise that theState Departmenthad a $5 million USD reward for Hector.
Ultimately, Sinaloa emerged victorious from this turf war, and nowadays the Beltran Leyva’s area of control has been narrowed down to only parts of Mexico’s Pacific coast. With Hector behind bars, the group’s last remaining senior leader is Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, is already the government’s next target. Given the history of Mexican cartels, one plausible scenario is that the moribund syndicate could eventually break apart into smaller gangs.
Secondly, President Peña Nieto can proclaim that under his administration, major cartel leaders have been arrested or eliminated. The list includes Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, leader of Sinaloa, who was arrested this past February, and Miguel Angel “Z-40” Treviño, leader of the Zetas, who was arrested in mid-2013. Moreover, according to a March report by the renowned Mexican daily Milenio, Peña Nieto’s presidency has not only been successful at crippling major cartels, it has also managed to prevent new ones from expanding their influence – such as the emerging cartels called Poniente, Los Rojos and La Corona.
Finally, while the Mexican government and security agencies are indeed carrying out successful operations against cartels, they are not free of sin. Human rights abuses carried out by security forces have occurred; including recent accusations that the Mexican Army executed 21 individuals in Tlatlaya this past June. The Army’s original version of the incident claims that the alleged delinquents were eliminated during a firefight with security forces. However, new testimonies claim that thesoldiers executed the suspects, some of them minors, after they surrendered.
Even more, former Mexican President Felipe Calderon (2006-2012), has admitted that security agencies abused their power during his presidency; some 5,600 accusations of abuse of authority have been recorded by the Mexican National Commission of Human Rights. As for President Peña Nieto’s opinion on abuse of power in the country, he argues that the situation is improving. In September he declared that citizen complaints to the aforementioned Commission had decreased by 41.6 percent during the first seven months of 2014, when compared to the same period of 2012.
Hence, a main concern is that victories against cartels may give a sense of empowerment to Mexican security forces, indirectly implying that they can get away with disrespecting citizen rights; including forced disappearances, torture or summary executions.
Certainly, the Mexican military and police should continue with their intelligence and surveillance tactics as well as security operations to dismantle the cartels’ leadership. Nevertheless, they should do this while also respecting the rights of innocent Mexican citizens. The accusations of the June massacre eclipses the Beltran Leyva arrest as repression and abuses by security forces should not be accepted in the name of national security.