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Drug lord’s death hits Mexico cartel

Calderón tackles a vast network

By Olga R. Rodriguez
Associated Press / July 31, 2010

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MEXICO CITY — The killing of a top leader of the Sinaloa cartel in a raid on his hide-out has dealt the biggest blow yet to Mexico’s most powerful drug gang since President Felipe Calderón launched a military offensive against organized crime in 2006.

Ignacio “Nacho’’ Coronel, a reputed founder of Mexico’s methamphetamine trade, was gunned down late Thursday trying to escape soldiers in the western city of Guadalajara. Mexican authorities say he fired on soldiers as helicopters hovered overhead and troops closed in.

Coronel was a close associate of Mexico’s most wanted man, Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo’’ Guzman, and was number three in the organization after Ismael “El Mayo’’ Zambada.

“Nacho Coronel tried to escape, and fired on military personnel, killing one soldier and wounding another,’’ General Edgar Luis Villegas said at a news conference in Mexico City. “Responding to the attack, this ‘capo’ died.’’

The raid “significantly affects the operational capacity and drug distribution of the organization run by Guzman,’’ he added.

The US Drug Enforcement Administration described Coronel as a major trafficker who was “directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people,’’ and called his death “a crippling blow’’ to the Sinaloa cartel.

In an unrelated development, the United States closed its consulate in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez on Thursday, pending a security review. The unexpected decision was made months after drug gangs killed three people tied to the consulate.

Coronel was killed amid persistent allegations that Calderón’s administration appeared to be favoring the Sinaloa cartel, or not hitting it as hard as other drug gangs.

Those allegations have drawn angry denials from the president and his top law enforcement officials, who point to the 2009 arrest of Vicente “El Vicentillo’’ Zambada — the son of Ismael Zambada — as proof they were going after the gang.

Coronel’s death was also the biggest strike against Mexican cartels since drug lord Arturo Beltran Leyva and six of his bodyguards were killed in a Dec. 16 raid by Mexican marines in the central city of Cuernavaca. Beltran Leyva, whose gang was once allied with the Sinaloa cartel, had become an enemy of Guzman’s organization by the time of his death.

The mysterious Coronel was believed to be “the forerunner in producing massive amounts of methamphetamine in clandestine laboratories in Mexico, then smuggling it into the US,’’ according to the FBI, which offered a $5 million reward for the 56-year-old.

Coronel allegedly controlled trafficking through the Mexican states of Jalisco, Colima, and parts of Michoacán — the “Pacific route’’ for cocaine smuggling.

“The scope of its influence and operations penetrate throughout the United States, Mexico, and several other European, Central American, and South American countries,’’ according to an FBI statement.

During Thursday’s raid, soldiers appeared to search at least two homes and arrested Francisco Quinonez Gastelum, alleged to be Coronel’s right-hand man and the only associate allowed to accompany him to his mansion.

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