Alleged Death of Drug Lord Could Set Off Power Struggle

Mexico's cocaine king may have died Friday - or he may have faked it

The already high level of drug-related violence on the border between the United States and Mexico will ratchet up a few notches if it is confirmed that Mexico's most powerful drug lord, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, is dead.

The man who became known as "the Lord of the Skies" for his bold and extremely lucrative innovation of ferrying tons of Colombian cocaine north to Mexico in huge cargo planes was reported to have died Friday in Mexico City following plastic surgery. In a bulletin Saturday, Mexico's Justice Ministry called the death of Mr. Carrillo Fuentes "probable," but said it could not confirm the news "with total certainty."

If Carrillo Fuentes is no longer part of the business of transporting cocaine and other drugs into the US, the border he ruled over from his Jurez cartel will see bloodshed as his underlings and rival drug gangs battle over his territory, analysts say.

"Whenever the head of a major corporation is pushed out or moves on, any number of key stockholders want to take a bigger stake in the game. And no doubt in this case, they'll move forward to do that," says Peter Lupsha, a New Mexico-based expert on Mexico's drug organizations. "In organized crime, this kind of upheaval always leads to increased violence."

In Novolato, in the Pacific coast state of Sinaloa, where the mother of Carrillo Fuentes lives and where the drug lord has had his principal ranch, family members and friends confirmed the death. Large numbers of expensive late-model vehicles with armed escorts were reported to have been seen entering the family compound.

But Mexican authorities were reluctant to trumpet the death of Carrillo Fuentes. It could still turn out to be a well-planned ruse to give the Lord of the Skies a new and freer identity.

Mexican and US drug-enforcement officials say that Carrillo Fuentes has undergone plastic-surgery operations before to alter his appearance. This could be a clever scheme, perhaps orchestrated by family, associates, and Mexican officials under the control of Carrillo Fuentes, to fake his death.

But Mr. Lupsha, a senior research scholar at the Latin American Institute of the University of New Mexico, says the rumors are probably true.

"He was known to have a history of drug abuse, and he was under a lot of stress," Lupsha says.

In January, federal police raided the wedding of the sister of Carrillo Fuentes in Sinaloa - reportedly only minutes after a tipped-off Carrillo Fuentes had fled the scene. Then in February, Mexico's drug czar, Gen. Jess Gutirrez Rebollo, was arrested and thrown in prison on charges that he was on the payroll of Carrillo Fuentes and was directing Mexico's antidrug efforts against rival drug cartels.

Since then, under stepped-up US pressure to capture the continent's No. 1 drug pusher, Mexican police have periodically swooped down on the properties of Carrillo Fuentes in Mexico City and elsewhere.

The battle for Carrillo Fuentes's turf could be especially brutal because he is not thought to have left behind a well-structured organization with a clear chain of command.

"He was the first Mexican of the international caliber of the legendary Colombian drug lords, but he was pretty much a one-man show," Lupsha says.

A brother, Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, will try to hold the organization together, Lupsha adds. But Lupsha also says that Vicente does not have his brother's mastery of the business or command of the crucial allegiances his brother enjoyed within the government, including inside the Justice Ministry, Interior Ministry, the Federal Police, and the Army.

Most observers expect that a drug war will rage if the Arellano Flix brothers, who run the Tijuana Cartel, move to take over areas along the Texas border from Ciudad Jurez to Matamoros that Carrillo Fuentes has controlled.

Lupsha says the outcome of Mexico's midterm elections, held yesterday, will also affect the way Mexico's drug business resettles in the wake of Carrillo Fuentes's death. For the first time in 68 years of a stranglehold on the federal government, Mexico's ruling Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) is facing the possible loss of its absolute majority in the lower house of Congress.

"If the PRI can pull off a majority in the lower house," contact people in key government offices can "take up the slack for [Carrillo Fuentes's] organization," Lupsha says.

The PRI's lock on power for so long is seen as having created a breeding ground for corruption.

But if the PRI loses, opposition parties will demand an opening up of government agencies that the PRI long ran like closed shops, Lupsha says. "And that will mean more opportunities for exposure" of corrupt relationships between government employees and criminals like Carrillo Fuentes.

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