The arrest of the alleged kingpin of the Gulf Cartel is likely to send a further jolt of instability across Mexico’s violent northeastern border with Texas even as it gives a boost to the nation’s navy over the scandal-ridden army.
A naval spokesman said Thursday that a 30-member team had captured Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez, known as “El Coss,” a 41-year-old former police officer who leads the Gulf Cartel, a once-formidable crime group.
The arrest occurred in Tampico, capital of Tamaulipas state, which abuts Texas, said Adm. Jose Luis Vergara. Costilla and five other men surrendered without any shots being fired, he added.
Costilla, sporting a thick black moustache and long sideburns and wearing a blue plaid shirt under a bulletproof vest, looked grim as guards hauled him before television cameras. He shook his head to questions.
Vergara said the arrest decapitated the Gulf Cartel, one of Mexico’s oldest drug trafficking groups but one that has been battered in recent years by warfare with Los Zetas, onetime Gulf Cartel enforcers that split off in 2010 to form their own gang.
Even further disarray is likely to engulf Costilla’s crime group, as underlings seek to rise up and factions of Los Zetas try to control the vital smuggling corridors that snake north of Monterrey, an industrial hub, toward the Texas border, analysts said. The area is perhaps the most violent in all of Mexico.
Mexico’s navy has scored a one-two blow against Gulf Cartel mobsters this month.
Its forces captured another cartel leader, Mario Cardenas Guillen, on Sept. 3, effectively taking down the top ranks of the crime group.
“The really big winners are the marines,” said George W. Grayson, an expert on Mexican crime groups at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, speaking of the navy’s amphibious infantry forces. “They’ve had half a dozen major takedowns since 2009.”
Despite being larger and better funded, Mexico’s army has failed to notch up the successes of the navy against gangsters, and it faces a tide of corruption charges.
In May, prosecutors arrested three former army generals and a lieutenant colonel in connection with drug investigations of the Beltran Leyva crime group. One of the generals, Tomas Angeles Dauahare, had been No. 2 in the Defense Ministry and a former attache in Mexico’s embassy in Washington. All four remain in jail.
Clearly upstaged, the army is expected to pull out all stops as 15,000 soldiers prepare to march Sunday in the 202nd anniversary of the start of Mexico’s war of independence.
While U.S. officials view the navy as a more trustworthy ally in the battle against crime syndicates, it, too, suffered a black eye in June when it erroneously claimed to have captured the son of top fugitive drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, head of the Sinaloa Cartel.
Within hours of the arrest, it turned out the man captured was Felix Beltran Leon, 23, an employee at a used car dealership.
The State Department had a $5 million reward out for the arrest of Costilla, and U.S. prosecutors in southern Texas indicted him in 2002 on a series of drug and money laundering charges as well as for pointing AK-47 assault rifles at U.S. agents and threatening to kill them in an incident in November 1999.
If Mexico decides to extradite him, and Costilla agrees to cooperate with U.S. prosecutors, new tremors would rock northeastern Mexico, where gangsters are believed to finance scores of municipal and state-level politicians.
Three former governors of Tamaulipas state are currently under criminal probe for ties to narcotics traffickers. One of them, Tomas Yarrington, who was governor from 1999 to 2005, has an Interpol warrant out for his arrest in 150 countries. Before his term as governor, Yarrington was mayor of Matamoros, the stronghold of the Gulf Cartel.