MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – The Mexican Army and state security forces on Sunday captured Jose Antonio Yepez, a notorious drug gang leader and fuel thief blamed for fanning a surge in violence that has severely tested the government of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
Widely known as “El Marro” (The Mallet), Yepez was captured early on Sunday morning in Guanajuato state, according to the federal government and authorities in the central region, one of the principal flashpoints of gang violence in Mexico.
“This a tremendously successful blow for the government,” said Raul Benitez, a security expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).
Boss of the Santa Rosa de Lima cartel, a Guanajuato-based gang, Yepez has been engaged in a bloody struggle for criminal control of the state with the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), one of the country’s most powerful and violent groups.
Yepez, 40, is the most high-profile arrest made yet under Lopez Obrador, who pledged to bring down record levels of violence plaguing Mexico when he took office in December 2018.
Instead, homicides have further increased during the Lopez Obrador presidency and last October his government suffered serious embarrassment when it botched the detention of Ovidio Guzman, a son of jailed kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
The Guanajuato attorney general’s office said soldiers and state security forces captured Yepez with five other people and rescued a kidnapped local businesswoman during the operation. An “arsenal” of weapons was also secured during the raid.
Mexican news network Milenio broadcast a video of the night-time arrest, which it said took place in the tiny village of Franco Tavera, a few miles north of the municipality of Villagran where the Santa Rosa de Lima cartel was born.
Wearing a grey hooded sweatshirt, jeans and sneakers, and flanked by several soldiers, Yepez gives his full name and age before also identifying himself as “Marro.”
Security forces have been gradually closing in on Yepez but he had managed to evade capture thanks to a tight network of informers who allowed him to stay one step ahead of his pursuers, according to analysts and media reports.
One of Mexico’s most-wanted bosses, El Marro has appeared in expletive-laden videos threatening his enemies, and in June a clip of an emotional Yepez lamenting the arrest of his mother and sister was widely broadcast on national media.
The women, who were suspected of aiding his operations, were later released when judges picked apart the case against them.
Initially notorious for fuel theft in a state crisscrossed by pipelines and home to a major oil refinery, the Santa Rosa de Lima cartel has become increasingly embroiled in battles with the CJNG, based in the neighboring state of Jalisco.
Hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of fuel were being stolen every year before Lopez Obrador cracked down a few weeks after taking office.
Abetted by the complicity of corrupt employees within state-run oil company Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), the lucrative activity gave the Santa Rosa de Lima outfit outsize financial heft, said security analyst Benitez.
“It’s even more money than cocaine,” he said.
Lopez Obrador blamed corruption at Pemex for fuel theft and the new management he appointed has vowed to root it out.
Yepez’s interrogation could yield rich information on corruption inside Pemex, Benitez said.
His detention also suggested that U.S. and Mexican security services had intensified cooperation to crack down on the trafficking of potent opiate fentanyl, a business of which Yepez was trying to secure a bigger share, he added.
U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Christopher Landau hailed news of the arrest in Guanajuato in a post on Twitter.
A hub of the carmaking industry, Guanajuato was once one of the safer regions of Mexico. But recent violence there has pushed national homicide tallies to record levels.
Once the government dismantles the Santa Rosa de Lima cartel, Benitez said, it can turn up the pressure on the CJNG, which in late June was blamed for a brazen assassination attempt on Mexico City police chief Omar Garcia Harfuch.
El Marro’s adversary, CJNG boss Nemesio “El Mencho” Oseguera, is arguably the most wanted crime boss in Mexico now.
“Now ‘El Mencho’ is next up,” Benitez said.
Security Minister Alfonso Durazo said Yepez would be taken to the Altiplano maximum-security prison where “El Chapo” Guzman was housed before he escaped through a tunnel in 2015.
Guzman was recaptured in 2016, extradited in 2017 and convicted of drug trafficking by a U.S. court in 2019.
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