A man believed to be the leader of the Gulf drug cartel, which controls some of the most valuable and violently contested smuggling routes along the US border, has been arrested by Mexican marines, the navy said.
If confirmed, the capture of Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez could open a power vacuum and intensify a turf war south of the Texas border in north-east Mexico.
The region that has seen some of the most horrific violence in the country’s six-year war among law enforcement and rival gangs.
The navy said in a statement that a man detained in the northern state of Tamaulipas said he was the capo known as “El Coss”.
One of Mexico’s most-wanted men, the 41-year-old is charged in the US with drug-trafficking and threatening US law enforcement officials. US authorities offered $5m for information leading to his arrest.
The Mexican navy gave no details of the arrest but is expected to present the alleged drug boss to the media in Mexico City later today.
The Matamoros-based Gulf cartel was once one of Mexico’s strongest, smuggling and distributing tons of cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and marijuana into the United States under the leadership of the Cardenas Guillen family, three brothers who took over from one another as their siblings were captured or killed.
Costilla was born in Matamoros, across the border from Brownsville, Texas. He worked for several years as a local police officer before joining the Gulf cartel in the 1990s and became a lieutenant for then-leader Osiel Cardenas Guillen.
After Cardenas Guillen was arrested in 2003 and imprisoned in the US, Costilla joined the capo’s brother Ezequiel in running the cartel. The tumult at the top prompted the powerful Sinaloa cartel to move in from its base along the Pacific Coast and launch a war for control of Nuevo Laredo, the busiest cargo crossing between the United States and Mexico.
The Gulf won the fight, backed by a gang of assassins recruited from Mexican military special forces. Emboldened by their success in holding Nuevo Laredo, the enforcers known as the Zetas began asserting their independence and split from the Gulf cartel in 2010 after the killing of a Zeta member in the city of Reynosa, across from McAllen, Texas, that Costilla is believed to have ordered.
The resulting fighting between the two former allies transformed north-eastern Mexico, an area home to cattle ranches, grassy fields and the industrial city of Monterrey, into a war zone rocked by daily shootouts and gruesome violence that included decapitations and corpses hung from bridges.
Ezequiel was the cartel’s figurehead until he was killed in November 2010 in a shootout with Mexican marines in Matamoros.
Authorities believe Costilla controlled the cartel’s daily drug trafficking activities but kept a low profile. Only two photographs of him were ever made public.
His removal from the scene could serve as an opening for Sinaloa or the Zetas, who have become the nation’s dominant cartels, to move in on smuggling routes that have been believed to include the border cities of Reynosa and Matamoros, and the Gulf port of Tampico.
El Coss’s capture would be a significant victory for the marines, who were embarrassed in June after announcing they had nabbed the son of Mexico’s top fugitive drug lord.
It turned out the man was not the son of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, but rather Felix Beltran Leon, 23, a stocky, baby-faced suspect whose family said he was the father of a toddler and worked with his mother-in-law at a used car dealership. He remains in custody, authorities say, because guns and money were found when he was arrested.
The announcement of Costilla’s arrest comes a week after the navy said it had detained another brother of Osiel, Mario Cardenas Guillen, in the Gulf Coast city of Altamira.
The navy said when announcing Guillen’s arrest the cartel had apparently divided into two wings after Ezequiel’s death.