MEXICO CITY – Mexican federal police arrested a suspected leader of the Los Zetas cartel in the violence-racked Gulf coast state of Veracruz, officials said Saturday.
Amado Mercado Guerrero, a former police officer in several towns of Veracruz and the purported head of a Zetas cell in the northern part of the state, was arrested Friday, the federal Public Safety Secretariat said in a statement.
Authorities said several kidnapping probes in that region led them to Mercado, whose area of influence covered the Veracruz municipalities of Tlapacoyan, Martinez de la Torre, San Rafael, Vega de Alatorre, Tuxpan and Poza Rica, the statement said.
The suspect headed a group of criminals that extorted business owners and kidnapped those who refused their demands and members of rival gangs, it added.
In early 2010, while working as a police officer in the Poza Rica-Coatzintla-Tihuatlan tri-city area, Mercado provided information and protection to the Zetas, the secretariat said.
After a restructuring within that drug mob in late 2010, Mercado began collaborating closely with Leonardo Vazquez, the Zetas’ leader in Poza Rica, running an extortion racket and carrying out kidnappings, vehicle thefts and drug smuggling at his behest.
After Vazquez was killed in a clash with federal police on Jan. 19, 2011, Mercado assumed control of the towns his boss had led.
The suspect will be held in pre-trial detention in the Pacific state of Nayarit, the secretariat said.
In that same area of Veracruz, authorities on Friday found the bodies of 10 people – most of them decapitated – and on Thursday a group of five gunmen killed 11 people in a series of attacks before they were slain in a clash with army soldiers.
Los Zetas, which is led by Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, known as “El Lazca,” is considered Mexico’s most violent drug cartel.
Lazcano deserted from the Mexican army in 1999 and formed Los Zetas with three other soldiers, all members of an elite special operations unit, becoming the armed wing of the Gulf drug cartel.
After several years on the payroll of the Gulf cartel, Los Zetas went into the drug business on their own account and now control several lucrative territories.
The federal government launched an operation dubbed “Safe Veracruz” in October, deploying federal forces and strengthening intelligence efforts to tackle a wave of drug-related violence in the state.
The operation was launched after dozens were found dead in Veracruz city, including 35 bodies dumped on Sept. 20 on a busy thoroughfare and 32 other corpses found a week later at three drug-gang “safe houses.”
The killings were blamed on the Jalisco Nueva Generacion drug cartel, also known as “Los Mata Zetas” (The Zetas Killers), which emerged amid a reorganization within the Sinaloa drug mob following the death in 2010 of one of its top leaders, Ignacio “Nacho” Coronel.
Jalisco Nueva Generacion has been fighting the Zetas for control of Veracruz state, where the Gulf cartel and breakaway members of the once-powerful La Familia Michoacana mob also operate.
Veracruz is prized by organ
ized crime as a key drug-smuggling corridor to the United States and as a route used each year by thousands of mostly Central American migrants, who are preyed upon by gangs and corrupt officials on their northward journey.
President Felipe Calderon militarized the struggle against the nation’s heavily armed, well-funded drug cartels shortly after taking office in December 2006, deploying tens of thousands of army soldiers and federal police to drug-war flashpoints.
The strategy has led to headline-grabbing captures of cartel kingpins, but drug-related violence has skyrocketed and claimed more than 50,000 lives nationwide over the five-year period.