At school, Barbie was an inside linebacker on the football team in a year when the United Longhorns won the district championship. He was a solid player, getting a sack or two a game, but he was never a star. His nickname came from his coach. "We called him Ken Doll, mostly because his hair was blond and kinky like the doll's," says a friend from that time. "Then the coach upped the ante to Barbie, and it took off like wildfire." Barbie took the teasing in stride. "He was a joker with a good sense of humor, walking around in his jockstrap and snapping his towel," recalls a teammate. When he got an infection his senior year and had to be circumcised, he showed it off in the locker room, telling everyone, "Hey, look, guys, I got my turkey neck cut off."
Barbie never sold drugs in high school, according to friends, but he and his buddies engaged in a common teenage exploit in Laredo: roping cows in the middle of the night, loading them onto trailers and selling them to the highest bidder. Mostly, he liked hitting the bars across the border after a game on Friday night, and driving his Chevy with its custom red-and-gold paint job, especially on a desolate stretch of road where there was nothing but desert in the distance. One night, two months before graduation, he collided with another car. The other driver, a middle-school guidance counselor, died instantly. Barbie faced trial for criminally negligent homicide but was cleared of all charges.
"I don't know how it affected him," recalls a friend. "The weird thing is that right away, Edgar came back to football practice, and he seemed exactly like the same guy, just horsing around."
When Barbie graduated from high school soon after, his dad pushed him to go to college. But Barbie, who was a terrible student, decided to pursue a more lucrative career path – one that didn't involve hitting the books. Before long he was hanging out at border nightclubs, being flashy with his cash. "One night at Sombrero's bar in Nuevo Laredo, the bartender told me that el güero" – a white guy – "wanted to send over some bottles of alcohol," says a friend from high school. "Barbie never even came over to talk to us, but when we left we saw him outside, in a black Jeep Cherokee. He stopped to say hi, and we saw that he had bulletproof windows. We just thought he was rich."
By age 20, Barbie was deeply involved in drug dealing. Laredo is the biggest commercial land crossing on the Mexican border, and customs agents can check only a small fraction of the 8,000 trucks that pass through the town every day. Barbie knew that if he could smuggle pot from Mexico in his truck, the resale price would instantly skyrocket. He started out bringing in small quantities, just to pocket a little extra spending money. But once he realized how much there was to be made, he and a friend began smuggling as much as 150 pounds of pot over the border at a time. Eventually, they expanded into cocaine, making their initial sales by FedExing the drugs to midlevel traffickers in Louisville and Memphis.
The year Barbie turned 21, his family's fortunes took an unexpected turn when one of his sisters won $1 million in the Texas Lottery. The Valdezes began making plans to move to the ritzy part of town, and Barbie married Virginia, his high school girlfriend. But the sudden influx of cash did nothing to stem his drug dealing. He had a good eye for deals – and, even more important, for when to walk away.
"I met him at a Popeye's in town to do a deal for 300 pounds of marijuana," recalls Martin Cuellar, a sheriff in Laredo, who was working undercover at the time. "He seemed ready to work with me, but then he stopped answering his phone. I guess he smelled something." Even when those close to him got busted, Barbie always seemed to elude jail. At one point, the cops captured a trafficker in Mexico who was supplying Barbie with cocaine. When they dug up the guy's backyard, they found the bodies of a missing Texas couple.
Finally, in 1998, Barbie's luck ran out. Police succeeded in planting an informant among Barbie's men, and he and a dozen members of his crew were indicted in Laredo for shipping at least 700 pounds of marijuana to San Antonio and 133 pounds to St. Louis. Terrified, Barbie pursued the time-honored path for criminals on the lam: He fled across the border into Mexico. Instead of putting an end to his career as a drug dealer, the indictment inadvertently paved the way for his rise to the top of the Mexican cartels.
For a 25-year-old drug dealer on the run in the Nineties, Nuevo Laredo was an ideal spot to do business. The violence among the Mexican cartels had not yet exploded, and there were pockets along the border where the drug trade remained largely free from their influence. Barbie was one of about 20 independent traffickers who worked under the eye of Dionisio Garcia, an established trafficker who sold them coke and required them to pay $60,000 a month as a piso, or tax, which was used to pay off corrupt border agents.
From the start, Barbie liked operating on his own. Over the next decade, he learned how to gather intelligence on the cops and other dealers through a network of "falcons" – a league of spies composed of cab drivers, waiters and street vendors. Unlike his flashier rivals, he liked to keep a low profile, driving a Chevy Malibu and a Nissan Sentra, though he demanded that the cars be washed regularly – he hated any hint of sloppiness. Barbie's close associates didn't look like average narcos: He insisted they be polite, quiet and clean, never come to work drunk or high, and never hurt women or children.
But the calm along the border didn't last. Within a few years, the big cartels started warring for regional control, and Nuevo Laredo, one of the jewels of the trafficking trade, suddenly became too valuable to remain independent. By 2002, the Zetas began to move into the area in allegiance with the Gulf cartel, which was run by Osiel Cardenas, better known by his nickname, the Friend Killer. Cardenas' first order of business was to get rid of Garcia, who was left to die a grisly death in his red underwear. Then Cardenas took over and immediately jacked up the price of cocaine. "From now on," he told the independent suppliers, "you're going to buy coke from me, or you're going to pay me the tax."
Barbie was angry about the killing of Garcia, but all he could do was bide his time. It didn't take long for Cardenas to run afoul of the law: Within a year, he was captured by the Mexican army. With the Friend Killer gone, Barbie, then 29, staged a brazen tax revolt: He decided to stop paying the piso imposed by the cartels. "Barbie stiffed the Gulf cartel on the tax for a ton of cocaine that they had fronted him," says a law-enforcement source. "They didn't take that too kindly. It was a big moment, the one that started the cycle of violence in Laredo for the next few years."
The Zeta-Gulf alliance immediately put a price on Barbie's head, and he was forced to turn to a rival cartel for protection. Garcia had been on friendly terms with the Beltrán-Leyva cartel, which was run by four brothers – Arturo, Alfredo, Héctor and Carlos – all with the gaudy narco look that Barbie eschewed. They operated mostly in western Mexico, but they were planning to seize control of the Laredo border after aligning themselves with Joaquín Guzmán, the head of the Sinaloa cartel. El Chapo, as he is known, is the world's most infamous drug trafficker, the one who escaped from a maximum-security prison in a laundry cart in 2001, dug an air-conditioned tunnel between Tijuana and San Diego, and made an appearance on the Forbes list of the World's Most Powerful People. These days, he quietly directs the Sinaloa cartel from a mountainous part of Mexico where a single road goes in and out, his outer security posted hours away from his door.
When Barbie heard that Chapo had ordered the Beltráns to seize the Laredo crossing, he saw the opening he had been waiting for. He rushed to Monterrey, an industrial city a few hours south of Laredo, and made his pitch to Arturo, the fat, eccentric, cocaine-addicted head of the Beltrán clan. Arturo quickly saw the value of an American kid who knew both sides of the border, and he promised Barbie protection if he could help them win the crossing. For Barbie, the war with the Zetas was personal – he wanted to see them go down not only for blowing up his spot but for killing one of his men, a young trafficker he called his "godbrother" and considered family. Swearing revenge on the Zetas, he threw himself into directing the Beltrán forces, hoping to massacre as many of his rivals as possible.
In 2005, more than 150 murders occurred in Nuevo Laredo, a city of 350,000, and almost all of them were connected to the war between the Sinaloa and the Beltráns on one side, and the Gulf and the Zetas on the other. "Barbie would rent hotel rooms for 10 or 15 people and send them out at night to go look for Gulf-cartel members," says a law-enforcement source. "He knew that the municipal police were helping the Gulf, so he targeted them for a time, too." Barbie and Arturo even flew to Mexico City to present a $1.5 million bribe to an intelligence commander in return for protection in Nuevo Laredo. Two months later, the officer sent to protect Barbie was shot dead by the Gulf cartel. Brutal acts were committed on both sides: Barbie killed a brother of the Zetas' enforcer, who in turn murdered one of Barbie's allies and raped the man's granddaughter.
In the end, the Zetas proved too strong for Barbie. With their military expertise and connections, they were able to up the ante by detonating car bombs, and Barbie suffered a further blow when U.S. agents stopped one of his tractor-trailers on the Laredo border, seizing 949 kilos of cocaine. He had also reached a low point in his personal life. He separated from his wife, Virginia, and sent his two sons to be raised by his parents in Texas. To make matters worse, Virginia's mother was arrested while working in the drug trade when police stopped her at a private airport in Gainesville, Georgia, with more than $1 million in cash in her Cessna. The Sinaloa cartel, she told the cops, gave her $3,000 for every $100,000 in drugs she brought into the U.S.
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