Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has hailed the capture of one of the country’s most notorious gangsters as an important victory in his so far fruitless struggle to slash murder rates.
In a Sunday night video message to the nation, López Obrador said security forces had seized “El Marro” or “the Sledgehammer” – the head of the Santa Rosa de Lima cartel – at about 6am that morning in the violence-stricken state of Guanajuato.
“How is it that this cartel was able to grow so much – to the extent that Guanajuato became our country’s most violent state?” asked Mexico’s populist leader, who took power in late 2018 vowing to slow the killing with a policy of “hugs, not bullets”.
“If there were 100 murders each day, 15 were being committed in Guanajuato – and some days there were 20 or 25 murders. How could this happen?” added López Obrador, who is best known as Amlo.
Sledgehammer – whose real name is José Antonio Yépez Ortiz - was the widely feared head of a gang of fuel thieves that controlled large swaths of the central Mexican state and was also involved in drug trafficking, cargo theft and extortion.
When the Guardian visited one of the villages at the heart of El Marro’s empire in 2018, the driver refused to enter, warning: “We wouldn’t make it out again.”
The Guanajuato-based group grew rich siphoning off billions of dollars worth of petrol from pipelines that crisscross the state, which is located to the north-west of Mexico’s capital and is home to one of its most important refineries.
El Marro, who had run the group since 2017, was reportedly apprehended on a rural ranch where he had been hiding following a brief gunfight with his security chief.
The newspaper El Universal claimed he had unsuccessfully tried to flee on a quad bike as a spy drone hovered overhead and troops closed in.
“Who betrayed me?” the “wild-eyed” kingpin reportedly asked his captors before conceding: “Everything has a beginning and an end – and my end has come.”
Experts called El Marro’s capture a triumph for López Obrador, whose security policy has come under growing scrutiny following a series of humiliating challenges from Mexico’s cartels, although few believe it will fundamentally solve the crisis facing his country.
Last year, as Latin America’s No 2 economy suffered a record 34,582 murders, gunmen working for the Sinaloa cartel seized control of the northern city of Culiacán and forced the release of one of the group’s key leaders, the son of the jailed capo Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
In June assassins, reputedly deployed by the ascendant Jalisco New Generation cartel, launched a brazen attempt to murder Mexico City’s police chief in one of the capital’s wealthiest neighbourhoods.
Jalisco cartel infantrymen subsequently appeared in a viral video, toting automatic rifles and swearing allegiance to their leader, El Mencho.
“It’s undoubtedly an important victory [for Amlo] … and he will no doubt use this in next year’s midterm elections to show he’s effective when it comes to security,” said Eduardo Guerrero, a Mexico City-based security specialist.
In fact, Guerrero said he believed El Marro’s arrest was part of a shrewd political gamble on the part of the federal government to force down the country’s sky-high murder rate.
“Guanajuato is responsible for about 15% or 16% of the total number of murders in the country. So if you can reduce violence in this state you can have a considerable impact on the national statistics,” said Guerrero who runs the group Lantia Consultores.
“If you can cut Guanajuato’s murders in half you can bring down the nationwide levels of violence by 7% or 8%. This would be a major PR coup for this administration,” added Guerrero, predicting that the city of Tijuana, where murder rates are also soaring, might also be targeted for the same reason.
Guerrero said security chiefs appeared to be wagering that dealing a body blow to El Marro’s faction would allow the more powerful Jalisco cartel to seize monopoly-like control over Guanajuato, thus reducing violence.
“El Marro was a very skilful, elusive and strategic leader and it seems to me that his replacements – who will certainly be relatives – don’t have the skills he had to keep this organization afloat,” said Guerrero, who expected the Santa Rosa cartel to splinter into dozens of smaller groups.
“It’s possible that by the end of the year there has been a significant drop in violence in Guanajuato and this would give the federal government something to show off ahead of next July’s elections.”
Other observers are less sure the arrest will do anything to end Mexico’s seemingly interminable conflict, which saw more than 2,800 peopled murdered in Guanajuato last year – 73 of them law enforcement officers.
“It’s a temporary victory,” said Chris Dalby, the managing editor of InSight Crime, which tracks Latin American organized crime.
“The violence in Guanajuato was the most important criminal threat to surge during López Obrador’s presidency and this allows him to show that he has done something about it – but it’s a very narrow victory.
“Yes, El Marro was a major, savage factor in the violence in Guanajuato. But removing him probably doesn’t change much,” Dalby added, noting that before taking power Amlo had explicitly vowed not to pursue the so-called “kingpin strategy” of targeting cartel leaders which critics say does little to reduce violence or stop drugs flowing north into the US.
On Monday, Mexican newspapers stamped photographs of the fallen capo across their front pages.
El Universal called El Marro’s arrest the end of a “dark chapter” for Guanajuato, which is home to several of Mexico’s best-known tourist destinations, including the picturesque colonial town of San Miguel de Allende.
But in his video message Mexico’s president, who is facing growing criticism over his handling of the coronavirus epidemic, admitted there was more work to do.
“We must continue tackling the root causes of violence – first of all poverty, and secondly, making sure there is no corruption and no impunity,” López Obrador said. “Our authorities must not protect these criminals.”