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An American Drug Lord in Acapulco

How a high school jock from Texas rose to the top of one of Mexico's most powerful and ruthless cartels

August 25, 2011 1:35 PM ET
la barbie mexican american druglord
Edgar "La Barbie" Valdez Villarreal after his arrest.
Daniel Aguilar/Getty Images

On a warm morning in May a few years ago, Edgar Valdez, a drug lord who goes by the nickname La Barbie, woke up in one of the houses he owned in the resort city of Acapulco. In the 1950s, this beautiful beach town was the premier haunt of American celebrities: Frank Sinatra used to prowl the hotel lounges, Elizabeth Taylor had her third of eight weddings here, and John F. Kennedy honeymooned on the coast with Jacqueline. The glamour started to fade in the 1980s, but the city remained a popular vacation destination until a few years ago, when the Mexican cartels transformed Acapulco from a seaside paradise into one of the most violent flash points of the drug war. As chief enforcer for the town's most powerful cartel, Barbie drove the celebrities away for good and made tourists nervous about straying too far into Acapulco when their cruise ships pulled into port. He felt bad about it, a little, but that is the way of the world, he thought – eat or be eaten.

Barbie has olive skin, but his nickname comes from his good looks and green eyes. He was known for his happy-go-lucky personality, though he could turn terrifying and bloodthirsty in an instant. At 31, he still had the strong, raw body of the linebacker he had been in high school: five feet 10, 210 pounds. Barbie kept a glass case at home filled with 60 Rolexes and diamond-studded Audemars Piguets, but unlike most narcos, he didn't grow a beard or wear flashy gold jewelry. He preferred to dress like a sophisticated South American on holiday, favoring polo jerseys with an emblem of a horseman and a stick, the kind that real Argentine jockeys wear. In fact, the myth of Barbie looms so large in Mexico that his addiction to the shirts started what's known as the Narco Polo trend, with working-class Mexicans clamoring to buy knockoff versions in street stalls. "These shirts like Barbie's have become the fashion," Mario López, the governor of the Mexican state of Sinaloa, told reporters in June. "Many young people want to emulate men like him as idols."

But his fashion sensibility wasn't the only thing that distinguished Barbie from other Mexican drug lords: He was also a gringo, a middle-class suburban jock who was born and raised in Texas. He is the only U.S. citizen known to have risen to the top of a Mexican cartel, and the only American on the State Department's list of targeted drug lords. (The U.S. government offered $2 million for information that would lead to his arrest.) For years, as drugs flowed into Acapulco from Colombia, Barbie controlled the main distribution routes out of the city, moving as much as two tons of coke – that's 2 million grams – into the U.S. every month. Most of the drugs went to Memphis and Atlanta, where Barbie is believed to have been the main supplier for several violent networks, including one run by the half brother of DJ Paul from Three 6 Mafia. Barbie cleared up to $130 million a year moving drugs in the States, but with typical boldness he made little effort to launder the money. Instead, he simply loaded the cash onto flatbed trailers and trucked it across the Mexican border.

In the lawless world of the cartels, that kind of money made Barbie a prime target. On this morning in Acapulco, he decided to eliminate the most immediate threat he faced. One of the policemen he kept on his payroll had informed him that four hit men from the Zetas – one of the most violent cartels, led by elite, American-trained soldiers who defected from the Mexican army – had been sent to Acapulco to kill him. So Barbie dispatched some of his own guys to ambush the hit men. When one of the assassins stopped in the town plaza to buy a phone card to call his sister, Barbie's men punched him in the gut and hustled him into a waiting SUV. To their surprise, however, the hit man had brought along his wife and two-year-old stepdaughter, figuring he might as well enjoy a family vacation while he was waiting to kill Barbie. Caught off guard, Barbie's men hustled them into another SUV, covering their faces with towels so they couldn't see.

The hit man and his family were taken to a house surrounded by an electric fence on the outskirts of Acapulco. According to testimony, Barbie's would-be assassin was then escorted to a bedroom upstairs, where he and his three Zeta accomplices were tied up and ordered to sit on top of a bunch of black garbage bags, which had been taped together to create a large tarp. Barbie climbed the stairs in the afternoon, carrying a video camera and a pistol tucked in his belt.

With the camera on, he began interrogating the men, asking them where they came from and what kind of work they did for the Zetas. "I have the contacts in the army to find out about the patrols," one confessed. "I am a recruiter for the Zetas," said another. "I worked as a 'hawk,'" said the third, adding that after he had kidnapped someone, his boss would tell him whether "they were going to take him to el guiso or not."

"What is el guiso?" asked Barbie.

"It's when they grab someone, they get information about moving drugs or money, they get what they want, and then, after torturing him, they execute him," the hit man said. "They take him to a ranch or one of those places, they shoot him in the head, they throw him in a can, and they burn him with different fuels like diesel and gasoline."

The words came spilling forth. As Barbie questioned them, the men told detailed stories about kidnapping rivals, killing reporters, burying people's daughters. They must have thought they were going to get some concessions for divulging so many secrets. But Barbie had other plans. He raised his gun. "And you, buddy?" he asked the fourth hit man.

The man never got a chance to answer. Suddenly, a gun entered the frame and blew the guy's head off.

The hit man's wife and stepdaughter were kept in the house overnight. The next morning, Barbie's men, whom he taught to be merciful to women, gave the little girl a bowl of cereal with a banana and let her swim in the pool out back. Later, they sent her away with her mother, giving them 1,000 pesos for bus fare. Before they left, one of Barbie's men told the wife, "Your husband said to tell you that he loves you."

Barbie believed in vengeance, and in taking care of his enemies. Over his 15 years in the drug trade, he had managed to alienate the leaders of almost every major cartel in Mexico: the Zetas, the Gulf cartel, even the Sinaloa and Beltrán-Leyva cartels he worked for. "Barbie had enemies galore," says George Grayson, a Mexico scholar at the College of William & Mary and the author of Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State. "He could have set the Guinness World Record for people who wanted to kill him." Yet Barbie remained chillingly detached, unable to see the connection between his personal savagery and the way his own family and friends came to fear him. "Even with all the bad things he's done, Barbie always thought the world looked on him kindly," says a law-enforcement source familiar with Barbie. "He's just one of those blithe-living guys who thinks his life is charmed."

Like many Texans, Barbie grew up right across the border from Mexico, in the city of Laredo. The place feels like something from a Mexican postcard, with cobblestone plazas and picturesque waterfalls – except for the massive, multilane bridge to Mexico that cuts straight through town. Until the drug war, everyone in Laredo saw the two sides of the border as one; many families, after all, had blood ties in both Mexico and the States. As a kid, Barbie loved to visit Nuevo Laredo, a border town bustling with donkeys, food carts, girls in little embroidered dresses, shoeshine boys and the smell of roasting corn. It was like stepping into another world, and all you had to do was cross the bridge.

In high school, Barbie was in the popular crowd, horsing around in the breezeways outside of class and waging egg wars after school. On weekends, he went to keggers on ranches, played elaborate scavenger games and hung out with his steady sweetheart, Virginia Perez, a bubbly, blue-eyed blonde. He grew up in a middle-class development on the outskirts of Laredo, a kind of no man's land where Burger Kings didn't begin to sprout up until the Nineties. Even the people of Laredo considered it "Indian territory," an area rife with dope and illegal immigrants. Barbie's parents raised him and his five siblings in a tidy, orange-trimmed home with palm trees in the front. "They're regular Ozzie and Harriets," says Jose Baeza, a spokesman for the Laredo police department. "They're business owners, PTA, morning-jog people."

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