Busting Mexico's Narco Juniors

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Daniel Aguilar / Reuters

Suspected Mexican drug trafficker Vicente Carrillo Leyva is presented to the media in Mexico City.

Standing before flashing cameras in a white Abercrombie & Fitch jogging suit with trendy glasses and a swish haircut, Vicente Carrillo Leyva doesn't fit the classic image of a gun-toting drug kingpin. The 32-year-old was detained quietly enough: police nabbed him while he was exercising in a park in a plush Mexico City suburb. But Mexican federal agents claim that Carrillo Leyva and other so-called "narco juniors" are key figures in the cartels started by their fathers — and their recent arrests show how the government is gaining ground in its fight against the cartels.

After his arrest, Carrillo Leyva was paraded before the press on April 2, the same day that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano arrived for war talks with their Mexican counterparts near Mexico City. The smooth-looking detainee is the son of the late Amado Carillo Fuentes, the notorious head of the Juarez cartel who became known as the Lord of The Skies because of his fleet of 27 private 727 jet airliners authorities say were used to traffic cocaine. (See pictures from Mexico's drug war)

Carillo Fuentes, a bearded roughneck from a ramshackle farming town, died in 1997 while undergoing plastic surgery to change his appearance. Since then, Mexican officials allege the young Carrillo Leyva has become No. 2 in the Juarez crime family. "Carrillo Leyva is considered an heir to the criminal organization known as the Juarez Cartel," said Marisela Morales, Mexico's Undersecretary for Organized Crime. "His main function was leadership and hiding illicit money for the organization."

The sweat-suited suspect is the latest of several alleged narco juniors to be nabbed in recent weeks. On Mar. 19, police arrested Vicente Zambada, the 33-year-old son of Ismael "The Mayo Indian" Zambada, a hard-faced character from cattle-ranching territory who rose to the top of the Sinaloa cartel. Ismael Zambada is at large with a $5 million dollar FBI reward for his capture.

Like Carrillo Leyva, Vicente Zambada was also detained in a wealthy Mexico City suburb; both grew up with top educations and luxury cars. But federal agents allege that from their mansions, they have been directing violence in the frontline cities of the drug war. Juarez, an industrial sprawl of 1.6 million located across the Rio Grande River from El Paso, became the bloodiest city in the Americas last year with 1,600 slayings, including 100 police officers. The fighting was blamed on a turf war between Carrillo Leyva's Juarez cartel and Zambada's Sinaloa organization. In February, President Felipe Calderon sent 7,000 troops to the city to quell the violence.

Michael Braun, who recently retired as Chief of Operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, says Carrillo and Zambada are indeed important players in the Mexican mobs. "I would refer to them as corporate-level figures," Braun said. "They are not on the streets pulling the triggers, but they are calling the shots. When you arrest them you make the cartels change their chain of command and this is all part of the pressure that makes them more vulnerable and less able to conduct their business."

Many on the Mexican street are suspicious about how the government suddenly sweeps up suspects without a shot when top American officials come to town. On the eve of Secretary of State Hilary Clinton's visit last week, police arrested Hector Huerta, an alleged cartel scion, in the northern city of Monterrey. Both Huerta and Carrillo Leyva had $2 million bounties on their heads, offered by the Mexican government. But niether seemed to be hiding that hard: Huerta was arrested while he was at home and Carrillo Leyva had gone outside for a workout.

Federal agents said Carrillo Leyva had been wanted for 12 years but was avoiding capture by living under a false identity. They said they eventually tracked him down through his wife, who is living in Mexico City with her husband under her real name.

Jorge Chabat, an expert on drugs gangs from Mexico's CIDE research institute, says that by going after the alleged narco juniors, the government is hurting the cartels, regardless of the timing of the arrests. "These organizations are being smacked, there is no doubt about it," he says. "Going after them means of course there is more violence. But then there is no other option. The war is a bad thing. But it is the least bad thing the government can do."