MEXICO CITY - Mexican marines acting on U.S. intelligence seized the leader of a breakaway faction of the hyper-violent Zetas cartel, officials said Thursday, proclaiming the third such arrest in a month as a victory for a bi-national strategy focused on removing the leadership of Mexico's organized crime groups.
Ivan Velazquez Caballero, known as "El Taliban," was seized by a team of marines in the northern city of San Luis Potosi. He becomes the 24th of Mexico's 37 most-wanted alleged cartel leaders to be killed or captured under President Felipe Calderón, whose term ends in two months.
"Calderón is in his phase where he's establishing legacy, and he wants people to say, 'His strategy was bloody but it worked,'" said Samuel Logan, managing director of the security analysis firm Southern Pulse and co-author of a recent book on the Zetas. "They're pushing forward on as many fronts as they can before he leaves office."
Critics say Calderón's approach splintered cartels into dozens of smaller factions, increasing the competition among them and fueling a brutal war for control of smuggling routes before Mexico had an adequate law-enforcement and justice system in place.
"You lose the leadership and the group starts fighting for power. We've seen that with every group that's been beheaded," said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, an expert on the Zetas' home state of Tamaulipas, and chairwoman of the government department at the University of Texas at Brownsville.
The government said at least 47,500 people had been killed in drug-related violence during Calderón's term before it stopped releasing figures last year. Independent observers say the death toll could be many thousands higher.
Velazquez Caballero allegedly has been fighting a bloody internal battle with top Zetas' leader Miguel Angel Trevino Morales.
All three alleged cartel leaders arrested this month are accused of leading factions of the Gulf Cartel or Zetas, former allies now feuding over territory along the U.S. border.
The alleged heads of the two main factions of the Gulf group, Mario Cardenas Guillen and Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez, were seized in navy operations in northern Mexico.
The head of the other dominant cartel, Sinaloa cartel head Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, remains free.