When war broke out between the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO) and the Sinaloa Cartel in 2008, it was the bloody culmination of the unraveling of the Federation, the most powerful mega-cartel yet seen in Mexico. The split traumitized Mexico not just in terms of the staggering body count, but because once the four Beltran-Leyva brothers turned their backs on Joaquin Guzman Loera, alias ‘El Chapo,’ a series of revelations made clear just how deeply the drug-traffickers had corrupted the state.
The war between Guzman and the Beltran-Leyvas ultimately proved more damaging for the BLO, which has seen its leadership decimated since 2009. Instead of being left isolated and vulnerable, Guzman was able to overcome the BLO split and maintain the Sinaloa Cartel’s status the most wide-reaching criminal group in the hemisphere.
The bond between the Beltran Leyva brothers and Joaquin Guzman stretched back to the 1980s. Alfredo, Arturo, Carlos and Hector grew up poor in the countryside not far from Guzman and broke into the business the same way: first as small-time poppy producers, then as hitmen and distributors for larger organizations such as the Guadalajara Cartel. Alfredo Beltran Leyva, the youngest of the four brothers, had a relationship with Guzman’s cousin. And when Guzman was jailed in 1993, the brothers brought him suitcases of cash and later helped him escape in 2001.
The Beltran Leyvas were also present in 2002, when Guzman brought together 25 of the largest drug trafficking factions to create the Federation – a bond forged by their mutual interest in trafficking drugs north and driving out the Gulf Cartel to the east. And they were present when the Federation first began to crack after disputes with the Juarez Cartel arose in 2004.
But even as cracks emerged, Alfredo, Arturo, and Hector, who authorities called the “Tres Caballeros” or “Three Gentleman,” in security briefs, remained at the core of the Sinaloa Cartel’s drug trafficking and corruption networks. At one point, authorities estimated they were operating in eight Mexican states where they used clandestine airstrips and their contacts in the security forces to move multi-ton cocaine shipments to the United States through mostly the Sonora state along the border with Arizona.
The Beltran Leyva brothers were also at the center of the Sinaloa Cartel’s security operations. In the early 2000s, they recruited a young, ex-football player from Laredo named Edgar Valdez Villareal. Nicknamed ‘La Barbie,’ for his blond hair and classic United States’ look, Valdez was a brutal and effective killer. His first task was to take Nuevo Laredo from the Gulf Cartel and their vaunted armed wing, the Zetas. Valdez failed but his reputation was cemented as he matched the Zetas’ barbarous acts with several of his own.
But fissures emerged in 2007, when rumors swirled of a BLO – Zetas alliance. The Zetas had begun to break from the Gulf Cartel’s grip. And despite the historical tensions between these groups, the Zetas’ control of the eastern seaboard would compliment the BLO’s control of much of the western coastline.With Valdez at the top, the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO) created an armed wing it called the ‘Pelones.’ Soon, other paramilitary groups were formed, including the ‘Gueros,’ the ‘Numeros,’ the ‘Negros,’ and Arturo Beltran Leyva’s own unit known aptly as Arturo’s Special Forces (‘Fuerzas Especiales de Arturo’ – FEDO). This last group was so brash they wore bulletproof vests, remarkably similar to the security forces, with the ‘FEDO’ insignia on the back.
There were also rumors that Guzman and his low-key counterparts were not pleased with the Beltran Leyva brothers’ high profiles. The brothers, mostly Arturo and Alfredo, were often seen (and pictured) with their top security man, Valdez, in glamorous parties with soap actresses and famous singers. At the heart of the problem was Alfredo Beltran Leyva, alias ‘El Mochomo.’ Married to Guzman’s cousin, ‘The Fireant’ lived a loud and flashy lifestyle, which may have caused tension between him and the quieter, more business oriented Guzman.
Tensions boiled over after the army suprised Alfredo on January 21, 2008, in Culican, arresting him and several of his cohorts. After his arrest, rumors instantly began to circulate that Guzman had handed this “liability” over to the security forces. Arturo, alias ‘El Jefe de Jefes,’ was reportedly furious and sought a meeting with Guzman. But after authorities released Guzman’s son, Ivan Archivaldo, from jail on a technicality, Arturo’s worst (possibly paranoid) fears were confirmed: Guzman had provided the information leading to the arrest of his younger brother Alfredo to rid himself of a “problem” and regain the freedom of his son.
Arturo took it upon himself to avenge his brother. His targets were twofold: the supporters of Guzman Loera and his longtime ally Ismael Zambada Garcia, alias ‘El Mayo’; and the corrupt security officials who were on the cartel’s payroll. These included top members of the government’s National Investigative Agency (Agencia Federal de Investigación – AFI) and the country’s drug czar, Noé Ramírez Mandujano. Ramírez was jailed in 2008, and is awaiting trial for receiving $450,000 per month from the organization.
The first signs of a BLO-Sinaloa split came with a surge of violence in Culiacan, capital of Sinaloa state, including the 22-year-old son of Guzman who was killed by as many as 20 gunmen as he exited a shopping mall in Culiacan. The killings quickly spread to Mexico City, where two top police officials were killed during the first week of May, shocking the country’s elite. By the end of May, Culiacan alone saw 116 murders, 24 of them policemen. Nationwide, the country registered 493 drug-related deaths that month, 64 of them police officers, a record at the time.
The federal government deployed more than 2,000 troops to Sinaloa to confront the rising tide of violence, but the Federation was already definitively broken and there proved to be little that the government could do to stop the feuding. The BLO cemented its alliance with the Zetas, and for a time presented a serious challenge to the Sinaloa Cartel. But Guzman regained the advantage after Arturo Beltran was killed by government troops on December 16, and the BLO’s internal discipline has been spiraling out of control ever since.