A former leader of Mexico's Beltrán Leyva Organization was sentenced to life in prison in a US court, but this diplomatic victory was quickly overshadowed by allegations that a Mexican police commander had worked for years to undermine US investigations of cartel leaders.
A federal judge in Washington, DC sentenced Alfredo Beltrán Leyva, a former leader of Mexico's Beltrán Leyva Organization (BLO), to life in prison on April 5. Judge Richard J. Leon also ordered the forfeiture of $529 million, a fraction of the $10 billion fortune that prosecutors estimate the BLO amassed between 2000 and 2012 by trafficking tons of cocaine and methamphetamine into the United States, according to the Washington Post.
A Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) official called Beltrán Leyva a "Goliath" in the world of Mexican drug trafficking, reported the Los Angeles Times. Judge Leon said he was "a leader of one of the largest drug cartels in the world."
Beltrán Leyva was extradited to the United States in November 2014 following a lengthy legal battle on the part of his lawyers to keep him in Mexico. According to the Post, he pleaded guilty in February 2016 without an agreement in place that could have lowered his sentence in exchange for information on other drug traffickers.
Meanwhile in Chicago, authorities unsealed a criminal complaint against former Mexican police commander Ivan Reyes Arzate for allegedly leaking information to cartel leaders who were under investigation by the DEA. A statement from the US Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Illinois said Reyes was "the principal point of contact for information being shared between U.S. law enforcement and the Mexican Federal Police."
The criminal complaint, citing a cooperating witnesss identified as a former law enforcement official and high-level member of the BLO, said the police commander "used his powers as a law enforcement official to protect the BLO's interests and regularly received payments totaling millions of dollars."
In one instance, the source said Reyes met with Arturo Beltrán Leyva in order to provide him with the identity of an informant cooperating against the BLO and other sensitive information. The informant was later kidnapped and murdered as a result of that meeting.
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Beltrán Leyva's sentencing should have been a bright spot in US-Mexico relations in the midst of a tense political atmosphere. A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said that a portion of the assets seized from Beltrán Leyva would go toward "our Mexican law enforcement counterparts, whose efforts were invaluable to Mr. Leyva's extradition and our successful prosecution of him."
But the Beltrán Leyva ruling is blighted by the unsealing of the criminal complaint against Reyes, which highlights how corruption and other issues continue to strain US-Mexico security cooperation. The US government withheld $5 million in anti-narcotics funding in 2015, citing the Mexican government's failure to meet human rights standards. And the escape of Sinaloa Cartel kingpin Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán from a maximum-security prison in July 2015 angered US officials, who had repeatedly called for his extradition to the United States. (El Chapo was recaptured in January 2016 and extradited to the United States earlier this year.)
Relations have been strained ever since the January inauguration of President Donald Trump, who implied that Mexican immigrants are "rapists" and has repeatedly promised to force Mexico to pay for a wall along the two countries' shared border. A trip by the US Secretaries of State and Homeland Security to Mexico in late February did little to alleviate concerns about the future of the bilateral security relationship.
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While the life sentence is a coda to Beltrán Leyva's long criminal career, the bloody cartel war that his arrest sparked nearly a decade ago is far from finished.
The Beltrán Leyva brothers were longtime partners of the Sinaloa Cartel, and their alliance became even stronger when Alfredo married the cousin of Sinaloa boss El Chapo. But cracks in the partnership eventually emerged, which became irreparable when Alfredo was arrested in January 2008. The Beltrán Leyva brothers believed El Chapo gave up Alfredo in exchange for the release of one of his sons, and war was declared soon thereafter.
The fighting left the BLO decimated, with all of its leaders either captured or killed. Yet the group, sensing an opening with the arrest and extradition of El Chapo in January, appears to be renewing its battle against the Sinaloa Cartel. Alfredo Beltrán Guzmán, who is Alfredo's son and also Guzman's nephew, reportedly ordered an attack on Chapo's hometown last June in which gunmen raided the house of the kingpin's mother and killed five people. Some Mexican journalists say Beltrán Guzmán has since formed an alliance with the Jalisco Cartel - New Generation (CJNG) in order to further weaken their mutual enemy.
These battles among fragmented drug trafficking networks have corresponded with increased violence across much of Mexico. Homicides rose by more than 20 percent last year, and are now nearing the levels seen during the apex of Mexico's drug war in the early 2010s.