Mexican Drug War Dispatch: The Life and Death of Kingpin Don Arturo Beltran Leyva

On December 16th in the town of Cuernavaca, Mexican armed forced cornered and killed Don Arturo Beltran Leyva, the country’s most powerful drug boss and one of the top three capos of the trade. Some people still don’t believe he is dead, some do, but all agree that it’s going to unleash a shitstorm. He’s a mythical figure among his people, but Americans have no idea who he is. So allow me the honor to introduce you to the man and the legend of Don Arturo Beltran Leyva.

In Mexico, if you call someone “Don,” it means you respect him to the extreme, and even fear him. You’d be more than justified in using the title when referring to the “jefe de jefes” of the Mexican drug trade. Don Arturo Beltra Levya was without exaggeration the most powerful boss in the country. He had more power than Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the drug cartel boss who was listed as Fobes’ #701 richest man of 2009. In Mexico, you won’t hear anyone referring to him as “Don Joaquin.”

Don Arturo died as he lived: immersed in extreme violence.

He was born on September 21, 1961 in the mythic “cradle of capos,” Badiraguato, Sinaloa. He was a poppy farmer and initiated the Forbes-listed “El Chapo” (”Shorty”) into the business of drug trafficking. Over time, Don Arturo worked his way up to becoming one of the most wanted men on the planet, his power and influence extending from Colombia all the way up into the Continental United States.

He was king of his domain: paying off government officials tasked with capturing him and bribing the highest ranking military officials. Many anti-drug czars in the PGR (which is Mexico’s version of  the FBI), the SSP (our Department of Defense) and even the SIEDO (an anti-narco intelligence service of sorts) were on the take. And anyone who wasn’t and stood in his way was executed.

Most of Sinaloa, Sonora and Durango—the tri-state region known as the Golden Triangle—was his. So was the entire state of Guerrero, especially the tourist-friendly zone of Acapulco, where he kept the streets safe and clean by killing off junkies, petty thieves, kidnappers, robbers and all other kinds of “undesirables.” He even ordered all tienditas to be protected by armed guards so clients wouldn’t be robbed by junkies after buying something. (They should do that at the top stairs of La Indepe here in Monterrey, where junkies swarm you like Somalis on a UN food delivery truck.)

People feared him more than the Devil himself. And like the Devil, Don Arturo had many names: “El Barbas” (”the Beard”), “El Botas Blancas” (”White Boots”) or “La Muerte” (”Death”). And he always traveled in a badass bullet-proof SUV called “El Satanica.”

Don Arturo grew in notoriety even more last year, after he became convinced that his brother’s arrest was a result of the betrayal of his one-time friend and apprentice, “El Chapo,” and proceeded to wage all out war against his former allies. That’s how the most violent chapter of the current drug war started, and then spread in a trail of blood and bullet casings to Morelos, Sinaloa, Guerrero, Mexico State (Edomex) and Mexico City. Hell, they even fought for control of the Mexico City’s international airport, which caused some of the baggage handlers started to loose their heads, literally.

In the last couple of months his life, Don Arturo started fiercely hunting his rivals. It was a characterized by its extreme gore and violence: dozens of decapitated and dismembered bodies signed with “Jefe de Jefes”.


The manhunt that finally brought the Don down lasted six days, beginning with the information that he would be attending a three-day Christmas party thrown by his sicarios in Tepoztlan, Morelos (close to Cuernavaca. The entertainment included several norteño bands and the services of 24 high class prostitutes flown in from Acapulco. The navy made their move while the party was raging, but he evaded them thanks the defensive capabilities of his many bodyguards. The Marines only managed to kill three hombres and capture 23 women (sadly one of the hookers died on the line of duty).

A few days later, the Navy located Don Arturo in a luxury apartment/upscale shopping mall complex, hiding out with 5 of his bodyguards. According to the government, they obtained the intel from a man (a sicario most likely) they found in a hospital getting his gunshot wounds bandaged up. But that’s their word, I’m more inclined to believe that the goddamn musicians gave him up, let’s hope they don’t lose their heads over this.


Once they located the Don, they surrounded the complex with enough firepower to turn to whole block into rubble. For hours, the area was filled with the sound of constant automatic fire, interrupted only by grenade explosions and the shouts of Marines telling the entrenched narcos to surrender.

It was a weird scene for such an upscale neighborhood inhabited by the rich and the powerful. Hell, even the Governor lived a couple hundred meters away from the apartment complex being shelled Lebanon-style.

But the Don had nowhere to go. More than a hundred Marines guarded the complex, and sixty more had rappelled down onto the roof from choppers.  The narcos were outnumbered maybe 100 to 1, but they still kept the Marines at bay for several hours. One by one, Don Arturo’s protection ring fell dead. One even preferred to jump from a window to his death rather than be captured. It was a crazed way to go, doing a bonzai jump out a window in the middle of firefight. The Marines didn’t leave shit to chance, though, shooting him in the back mid-air. And I don’t think this would count as mercy-killing.

As the hours went by and the capo ran out of grenades, he made a mad dash for the elevator hoping to make it to the basement where  “La Satanica” waited warming its engine. With an R-15 in hand, he opened the front door, intending to shoot his way through the Marines. But the Don didn’t make it very far. The Marines shot him full of holes right at the entrance to his apartment, blowing a huge hole in shoulder. He fell to the ground with about 30 grenade pins all around his body. It was a grizzly scene, and strikingly similar to that last bit in Scarface.


The Don was found with $40,000 dollars, and various religious objects: a protection cocktail of sorts that included a golden rosary, two Chinese talismans (a dragon and a serpent) and a velvet bag of santeria. Many narcos (including a few of my friends) believe in these kinds of things, even if they aren’t religions not practitioners. They do it just to be safe. They’ll use anything that might give them an edge.

On the table they found bowls of fruit, a plate of ham & eggs with guacamole, a bag of good-looking weed, what looked like about 2 ounces of pure cocaine straight from the FARC fields, and an unmistakable (to me at least) package of good´ol rivotrils (aka roofies) to calm the nerves, keep a steady head and banish the fear.

In his bedroom, which was full of bullet holes, the Marines found brand new Hugo Boss clothes, some still with the price tags, a bible, many family pictures, images of the Virgen de Guadalupe, and some badass green crocodile-skin boots.

“They could have lived, because from the beginning we told him to surrender and he didn’t accept it. He fought to the death,” said a Marine who participated in the raid.

Don Arturo was photographed with his pants below his knees and his body covered in both Mexican and American bills. The Marines did this to “discredit” him and make an example of him, I guess. (This already is creating problems for the Government, which is being accused of exhibiting the body of the drug lord as a propaganda trophy.) They were acting all tough, but everyone was still shit-scared about the possibility that a backup squadron of sicarios would attempt to rescue the body of “el jefe de jefes.” So even after they killed him, something like 500 additional units arrived to guard the bodies!

The body was claimed by his 3 sisters so he can receive a proper burial, probably in his birthplace in Sinaloa. Expect a big-ass mausoleum worthy of a goddamn Persian Shah.

The only question that stands after this events is: why did they REALLY kill him? Some would say it was a result of President Calderon´s war on drugs, others would say that he wasn’t captured alive because of the names of government people he could reveal. Which is all true, but the real question is WHO benefits from his death? Not the Mexican people; it was well known that he was the only narco that the government could “deal” with, even the Mexican armed forces come out losers. Power will shift and restructure, and like tectonic plates shifting and settling, it’s gonna cause a lot of tremors. There might even be a volcanic eruption or two.

The Beltran cartel will restructure itself according to the strength of its top operators: Edgar Valdes Villarreal “La Barbie”, a Laredo Texan with talent for the killing; Mario Beltran Leyva “El General”, most likely the next in line to lead the cartel; and Sergio Villarreal “El Grande,” a two-meter-tall guy who referred to Don Arturo as apá (or dad). All itching to pull the cuernos (AK47) and make the erres (R15) roar. Let’s hope that cooler heads prevail and they don’t go pointing their guns at a Navy Admiral or something counterproductive like that.

But however the Beltran cartel achieves its corporate restructuring, the two biggest beneficiaries of Don Arturo’s demise are a) his allies, the Zetas; and b) his enemy “El Chapo.”

So buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy ride in 2010.

PS: The death of Arturo Beltran doesn’t serve as an example to society that you shouldn’t follow his path, because when all doors are locked and one has to choose between dying of hunger in a fucked up situation or becoming a millionaire for even a brief time, they will always choose the second option. That’s exactly the feeling that many Mexicans share: one would rather die rich than live being poor.

The King is dead, long live the King.


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