Compelling evidence indicated that the BLO was enjoying the good life in Cuernavaca, Morelos, a colonial gem 47 miles from the Federal District.
The Mexican Army showed no interest in attacking the site even though its 24th regional headquarters lay only a few blocks from El Barbas’ bailiwick. The regional commander had apparently bonded with the so-called “boss of bosses.”
In view of Army indifference, the Marines – an arm of the Navy – took charge. On Dec. 16, 2009, ski-masked commandos assaulted the compound and killed Beltrán Leyva and several bodyguards in a frenzied firefight.
President Felipe Calderón called the action “a heavy blow” against one of the most dangerous criminal organizations in Mexico.
The episode marked the first – but by no means the last – land engagement against traffickers by a naval force. Long regarded by the Army brass as its “little brother,” the Navy has emerged as the most efficient ally of U.S. security agencies participating in Mexico’s protracted drug war, which has consumed 45,000 lives since Calderón took office almost six years ago. In February 2009, the Navy even signed a pact to keep secret all communications with the U.S. Department of Defense.
Besides the Beltrán Leyva slam-dunk, the Navy/Marines have distinguished themselves in the takedowns of Gulf Cartel co-boss Antonio Ezequiel “Tony Tormenta” Cárdenas and the regional chief of the sadistic Los Zetas cartel, Lucio “El Lucky” Hernández Lechuga.
The 200,000-member Army has registered successes, but the Navy with 50,000 cadres, including 18,000 Marines, has captured or killed disproportionately more kingpins.
Several factors account for the Navy’s rise in stature. To begin with, many mossback generals exhibit a toxic nationalism toward the U.S. – exemplified by speeches and ceremonies that revive memories of the “War of North American Aggression” when Mexico lost nearly half its territory to Uncle Sam in the mid-19th century.
Nor will visitors to the country find statues of Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, who in March 1916 led the 10,000-soldier Punitive Expedition in a vain attempt to apprehend the iconic Pancho Villa whose forces had raided Columbus, New Mexico.
In 1914, a misunderstanding involving American sailors in the oil-exporting harbor of Tampico morphed into a six-month occupation of Veracruz; however, the Navy incurred neither the losses nor the humiliation suffered by the Army at the hands of the invaders.
The imperative for sea duty enables superiors to buffer subordinates from criminals. Port calls gives Mexican seaman a chance to hobnob with foreigners – an opportunity lacking for most Army personnel.
In addition, conduct of land operations, staffing of highway checkpoints, patrolling airports and occupation of cities exposes Army units to ubiquitous corruption.
The culture of graft long prevalent in the military combined with the abuses of civilians exposed by human rights organizations has forced action by Defense Secretary Guillermo Galván. At least five retired senior generals accused of accepting lavish bribes from the BLO now languish in the Almoloya maximum-security prison.