Ski-masked marines invited photographers into the shrapnel-ridden apartment to snap photos of the corpse late into Wednesday night. The graphic images of the bullet-ridden 51-year-old man, clothes hanging off and hands grasping religious beads, were soon plastered across the Internet alongside triumphant declarations from Mexican officials. The marines had shot Arturo Beltrán Leyva, or "The Beard," one of the bloodiest and most powerful drug traffickers in Latin America, they said. This death, they claimed, marked a major victory in the war against the drug cartels that are wreaking havoc south of the Rio Grande. "This is a crushing strike against one of the most dangerous criminal organizations of the continent," an upbeat President Felipe Calderón said in a televised statement from the Copenhagen climate-change conference on Thursday, Dec. 17.
But critics of Calderón's military approach to the drug war are dubious about whether the dramatic killing will actually help reduce the wanton trafficking and violence in Mexico. "The Beard" may be gone, but he could simply be replaced by one of his even more bloodthirsty lieutenants. There is also concern that the killing may just strengthen the other five cartels vying for power in Mexico. "If this was a conventional war, then this killing of a key general would be a clear victory," says historian and pundit Jose Antonio Crespo. "But in the drug war, this slaying is likely to just cause a power vacuum that will lead to more bloodshed."
There is little doubt that Beltrán Leyva was a bona fide kingpin and a genuine threat to the Mexican security services. Born in a rough-hewn village of the northern Sierra Madre, he was alleged to have been trafficking heroin and marijuana since the 1980s. As Mexican cartels grew in power, drug agents say, he forged a smuggling empire stretching from the jungles of Colombia to the avenues of New York City. He is alleged to have masterminded the killing of hundreds who stood in his way, including federal police chief Edgar Millan, who was shot dead in his home in May 2008. "As he first created and then defended his empire built on cocaine, meth and heroin, he orchestrated the murder of countless law-enforcement officers, innocent civilians and rival traffickers. And along the way, he took every opportunity to terrorize the innocent," DEA acting administrator Michele M. Leonhart said in a statement congratulating Mexico on Beltrán Leyva's capture.
However, some agents worry that the reins of this smuggling empire may now be taken over by Beltrán Leyva's feared chief of hit men, Edgar Valdez, 36, a Texas-born fugitive known as "The Barbie" because of his blond hair. Mexican officials allege that Valdez was behind the videotaped torture and killing of a rival gangster in Acapulco in 2005. Similar to an al-Qaeda propaganda film, the video triggered a wave of copycat movies posted on the Internet, raising the stakes in the Mexican drug war. Such a figure could unleash even more carnage if he were at the top of a cartel.
Alternatively, there is concern that the demise of "The Beard" may strengthen the hand of his top rival, Joaquín "El Chapo (Shorty)" Guzmán, the most wanted man in Mexico. Reputed to have been childhood friends in the mountains, Guzmán and Beltrán Leyva were alleged to have trafficked together for decades before turning into deadly enemies in 2008. The subsequent turf war left hundreds of dead bodies, including Guzmán's 22-year old son Edgar, on the streets of their native state of Sinaloa. The death of Beltrán Leyva could possibly lead to an end to this battle among Sinaloan mobsters. But a strengthening of Guzmán who is included in Forbes' billionaires list may also set off more violence on other fronts, including Ciudad Juarez, perhaps the most dangerous city in the Americas.
There are also questions about how the nature of Beltrán Leyva's end will affect the drug war. Back in the 1980s and '90s, key Mexican kingpins were arrested peacefully by police officers. However, amid the militarization of the conflict under Calderón, the armed forces conduct most major detentions. In the operation to nab Beltrán Leyva, hundreds of marines swept on an apartment building in the spa city of Cuernavaca, an hour's drive from the capital. A two-hour battle ensued, involving grenades and mounted machine guns, before the drug lord, five of his soldiers and one marine lay dead.
A source close to the navy told TIME, "The marines, besides having excellent intelligence and keen analysis, have discipline and esprit de corps, have all the tools that are needed to be successful in this so-called war. Now the question is, Will they be on the street, like the army and the police? Will they be used as a special ops, or what, and for how long? And if this is the last resort, then what?"
Attorney General Arturo Chávez said Thursday that there is no shoot-to-kill policy but that troops have to fight fire with fire. "The Mexican government has never pursued criminals to kill them," he said at a news conference. "Obviously, if [soldiers] are met by bullets, they have to respond to the aggression. That is what happened in this case." The lesson may persuade others to surrender rather than risk death. But the gunning down of major capos could alternatively trigger even more ruthless responses from kingpins against both officials and the civilian population.
With reporting by Dolly Mascareñas / Mexico City