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Can Mexican cartels be defeated?

Analysis: The string of high-profile arrests of alleged drug kingpins won't end the drug war.

Sergio Enrique Villarreal
Sergio Enrique Villarreal of the Beltran Leyva drug cartelis presented to the press at the Mexican Navy headquarters in Mexico City, on Sept. 13, 2010. (Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images)

MEXICO CITY, Mexico — Standing 6-foot-6-inches with broad shoulders and a wild beard, the arrested drug lord known as “El Grande” or “King Kong” made a bulky prize for the Mexican government when he was shown on TV screens Monday flanked by masked marines.

Sergio Villarreal, who had a $2.3 million reward on his head, is the latest alleged kingpin to be detained or shot dead by Mexican security forces, adding credence to President Felipe Calderon’s claim that he is winning his war on drug gangs.

In December, marines gunned down Villareal’s old boss, Arturo Beltran Leyva; in January, federal police nabbed Tijuana mobster Teodoro Garcia; in July, soldiers shot dead Ignacio “Nacho” Coronel; and in August, police grabbed the smiling beefy Texan Edgar Valdez, alias “The Barbie Doll.”

However, on the bullet-ridden streets of Mexico, weary residents ask a pertinent question about these arrests — do they really mean the Mexican government is regaining control or will they only lead to more bloodshed?

The question underlines a central issue with the war on drugs — and the tactics that have been developed during its four-decade history.

In the optimistic 1970s, when U.S. President Richard Nixon first made a declaration of war, officials were convinced they could stop the flow of drugs by taking down the big fish like Villareal. It was a victory defined in absolute terms.

“Our goal is the unconditional surrender of the merchants of death who traffic in heroin. Our goal is the total banishment of drug abuse from the American life,” Nixon said in 1972.

After decades of arresting kingpins and failing to stop the rivers of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and crystal meth, drug warriors created a new rationale: limiting the power of drug gangs.

This strategy was honed in Colombia, where gangsters such as Pablo Escobar became so powerful they were blowing up airplanes and kidnapping politicians.

American and Colombian officials worked together to take down Escobar and the string of mobsters who came after him. They now argue that while cocaine still flows north, no Colombian kingpins have the power to challenge the government.

“Escobar was running a cartel for 15 years. Now the kingpins in Colombia only last about 15 months,” an American law enforcement official told me recently in Bogota. “If you get on the radar, you will be taken down.”

It is a bit like a giant hammer constantly swinging down. Gangsters will move drugs, but anyone who gets too big will be struck by the hammer.