Mexico arrests Beltran Leyva cartel chief

Mexico City (AFP) - The suspected heir of Mexico's family-run Beltran Leyva drug cartel was swept up by soldiers as he ate at a seafood restaurant in a colonial town popular with American retirees.

Hector Beltran Leyva, known as "El H", was caught along with a suspected henchman Wednesday in San Miguel de Allende, in the central state of Guanajuato, without a shot fired, authorities said.

Known for its cobblestone streets, well-preserved colonial buildings and old churches, San Miguel de Allende is a picturesque 16th century town that many artists and American retirees now call home.

The arrest allows President Enrique Pena Nieto to cross off another big fish from Mexico's most wanted list following the captures of Sinaloa cartel kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman in February and Zetas leader Miguel Angel Trevino last year.

The government says it has captured or killed more than 80 of Mexico's 122 most wanted criminals. Authorities say most have been caught alive.

Tomas Zeron, director of investigations at the attorney general's office, said Beltran Leyva, 49, had a home in the neighboring central state of Queretaro.

He was passing himself off as a "well-off businessman dedicated to real estate and art sales to justify his lifestyle," Zeron said.

Beltran Leyva, who was carrying a gun during his arrest, was detained after an 11-month investigation, Zeron said.

Pictures released by prosectors show Beltran Leyva wearing jeans and a checkered long-sleeve shirt as two masked soldiers armed with assault rifles escort him down a hallway.

"This action proves the effectiveness of the public policy of security and law enforcement to get the peaceful Mexico that we desire," Pena Nieto wrote on Twitter.

Beltran Leyva inherited the throne of his family's drug clan when his brother and "boss of bosses," Arturo, was killed by marines in 2009 in a mansion in Cuernavaca, a popular weekend getaway for Mexico City residents.

Two other brothers, Alfredo and Carlos, are in jail.

- $7 million man -

Zeron called Beltran Leyva one of Mexico's top drug traffickers, who specialized in moving cocaine from South America and Central America to lucrative US and European markets.

Mexico had offered a $2.2 million reward for information leading to his arrest, on top of a $5 million US bounty.

He faces charges in Washington and New York courts.

US Drug Enforcement Administration chief Michele Leonhart congratulated Mexico over the arrest, saying Beltran Leyva's cartel smuggled "countless" amounts of drugs into the United States while much of the violence plaguing Mexico can be traced to the gang.

"One of the world's biggest drug empires continues to crumble with the capture of Hector Beltran-Leyva in Mexico," Leonhart said.

The Beltran Leyva clan was initially allied with Guzman's Sinaloa crime syndicate, considered the biggest cartel in Mexico.

But the two cartels went to war after Alfredo Beltran Leyva was detained in 2008 following a betrayal by Guzman, officials have said.

It was after the split that the Beltran Leyvas formed their own cartel.

More than 80,000 people have died in drug violence in Mexico since 2006, many of the deaths due to turf wars between the country's numerous gangs.

The Beltran Leyva cartel is believed to operate in a third of the country, mainly in the central and southern regions.

The gang has undergone internal power struggles and is known for its vast money laundering operations and ability to corrupt officials.

Beltran Leyva escaped capture once before in 2011, when he fled his home in Mexico City, where he lived with his wife and three of his daughters.

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