U.S. Student Became Mexican Drug Kingpin

By James C. Mckinley Jr. And Elisabeth Malkin | NYTimes.com

LAREDO, Tex. — The other children in his middle-class suburb teased him by calling him Barbie because of his looks, which reminded them of a Ken doll. The name stuck, and three decades later it would become associated with sadistic gangland slayings.

Few people who knew Edgar Valdez Villarreal back when he was a square-jawed football star at United High School here would have pegged him as likely to become one of Mexico’s most feared and savage drug leaders. None of the clichéd roots of crime could be seen is his youth: no broken home, no abusive father, no poverty.

Instead, his father was a shop owner in downtown Laredo who emphasized church, hard work and the value of a college education. He grew up in a well-appointed brick home with a wooden swing set in the backyard. Most of his siblings went to college and started businesses, becoming the sort of law-abiding people who are the mortar of society, neighbors and relatives said.

“He chose that road,” said his older brother, Abel Valdez Jr. “We are a good family.”

The authorities in the United States and Mexico say Mr. Valdez, who is 37, moved to Mexico after being indicted in the 1990s on charges of dealing marijuana, and rose quickly to become a violent leader in the Beltrán-Leyva gang, at the helm of a corps of gunmen engaged in almost constant warfare with other cartels.

He is the only American citizen known to have moved so high in the command structure of the Mexican cartels.

Five years ago, Mr. Valdez played a key role in the battle between the Sinaloa Cartel and the Gulf Cartel for control over the lucrative I-35 smuggling route into the United States, the Drug Enforcement Administration says.

He is also believed to be the person most responsible for pushing that conflict into central and southern Mexico, taking over the city of Acapulco.

Last week, Mr. Valdez was captured by dozens of federal police officers after a firefight at a rustic house in the mountains northwest of Mexico City. He had eluded the authorities for years despite having multimillion-dollar bounties on his head, and his capture was considered a major blow to the remnants of the Beltrán-Leyva organized crime group, law enforcement officials said.

For months, Mr. Valdez had been fighting for control of the gang since its leader and his mentor, Arturo Beltrán Leyva, was killed in a gun battle with the Mexican Marines last December in Cuernavaca, just south of the capital.

The internecine struggle had pitted Mr. Valdez against Mr. Beltrán Leyva’s brother, Hector. More than 150 people have died in the struggle, many of them mutilated or beheaded and left with grisly messages for the other side.

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