An American Drug Lord in Acapulco

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Even though he had lost the Laredo crossing, Barbie had become extremely close to Arturo: "Arturo trusted him like a brother," said a law-enforcement source. The Beltráns decided to give Barbie a job as the manager of their enforcement wing, known as the Patrols. Barbie gave his men comical nicknames, like the Monster, the Korean and the Clown. He also moved to the Beltrán stronghold of Acapulco, where business was good and life would be a little easier. In the resort city, Barbie had time to enjoy himself. He drank Moët rosé and played a lot of tennis, Xbox and Wii, at one point giving an associate $3,000 and telling him to buy as many video games as possible.

For safety, Barbie moved around constantly between his homes on the beach, in the ranch country and in the tony Mexico City suburb of Santa Fe, where he had several apartments in different luxury complexes. He liked to call them "the offices," and he even soundproofed a "torture room" in one of them. "One time, Barbie had a guy in there who had been screaming for two days," recalls one of his associates. "Then one of Barbie's guys who was in charge of security came in with a chain saw. Barbie told us, 'Something is going to go down in there, guys. Plug your ears. Don't listen.'"

Barbie proved to have a flair for the dramatic. In a major innovation in the drug war, the videotaped murder of the Zeta hit men who had tried to kill him was mailed to the media, and eventually made its way to The Dallas Morning News, a paper read by many in Barbie's hometown of Laredo.

It was the beginning of a whole new style of publicity that would soon be adopted by all of the cartels: offing your enemies and posting the evidence online as a warning. In Barbie's warped mind, he assumed everyone would applaud his brutal actions – after all, Acapulco was his turf, and he was just trying to protect it. To bolster his popularity, Barbie placed a full-page ad in a major Mexican newspaper, blaming the Zetas for the cycle of violence. In an open letter, he implored the government to "end the great cancer of narco-kidnappers, and murderers of women and children." It was a moving note, full of emotion. "I may not be a white dove," he wrote, "but I am sure of what I have done and what I am responsible for."

The Mexican press ate Barbie up, eagerly chronicling his exploits. He bought flashy discos, closing them down a few nights a week to party in them himself. He made frequent appearances at after-hours clubs called "los afters," where he took Ecstasy. He reportedly dated a famous soap-opera star, and paid $100,000 to have a film made of his life, though he pulled out once he realized the script would implicate his friends and family.

In 2006, when Barbie turned 33, he staged his "wedding" to Priscilla Montemayor, the 17-year-old daughter of one of his partners known as El Charro. Priscilla was a beautiful Texas girl with an easy smile, and she didn't mind the narco lifestyle: Not only was her father in the life, but one of her great-uncles had been killed by the Zetas during the border war. Barbie refused to divorce Virginia, fearing she might win custody of their kids. He was older now, and family was important to him. He also announced that he didn't want to be called La Barbie anymore; rival narcos were spreading rumors about all the attention he paid to his clothes and personal appearance, whispering that he was a homosexual. From now on, he declared, he preferred to go by a more masculine-sounding nickname: El Señor, or Sir.

Things seemed to be looking up for Barbie. Business was booming, he had the protection of one of Mexico's most powerful cartels, and he felt secure in Acapulco, where the Beltrán brothers spent millions bribing cops and government officials. Then one morning in January 2008, Barbie and the Beltráns received a shock. Alfredo, "The Red Ant," the tall, handsome Beltrán brother who managed a pair of assassin squads called the Blondies and the Baldies, was ambushed and arrested by police at his apartment in Culiacán. He was led away in handcuffs, and the cops confiscated nearly $1 million in cash.

Barbie and the Beltrán brothers were enraged. They knew there was only one person with the motive and the means to take down Alfredo: Chapo, their longtime ally in the Sinaloa cartel. Chapo was reportedly displeased with the growing power the Beltráns and Barbie held over Acapulco. "Chapo doesn't run a very hierarchical cartel – his allies are more like a loose federation of warlords, like in Afghanistan," says Scott Stewart, an analyst with the intelligence firm Stratfor. "He isn't always looking over everyone's shoulder, but whenever someone starts to get too big for his britches and pose some sort of leadership challenge, that person suddenly seems to start having problems."

Chapo's perceived move against the Beltráns sparked an all-out war. A few months later, Chapo's 22-year-old son was killed by multiple gunmen on the same day that assassins ambushed Mexico's new federal police chief. Soon, corpses were turning up all along the Pacific coast. President Felipe Calderón sent in thousands of troops, but more than 580 people, including 64 policemen, died in the dispute.

If the Beltráns had a strong leader, they could probably have withstood Chapo's attack. But Arturo, the head of the cartel, was becoming more and more erratic, partying at all hours and reportedly even dabbling in cannibalism. "I was friends with Arturo," Barbie would later report. "But when he was on drugs, he wanted to kill me. And when he wasn't, everything was cool." On the verge of a paranoid break, Arturo retreated to his house in Cuernavaca, where he sat by the pool, lazily flicking $100 bills at girls he hired to entertain him. One night in December 2009, he hired 24 strippers and a Grammy-winning norteño band to come over for a party. Barbie was there too, keeping an eye on the two dozen or so bodyguards with gold-and-diamond-studded pistols who roamed the property. But just as the party was getting started, Mexican special forces suddenly stormed the house. As chaos erupted and the girls scrambled to hide from the gunfire, Arturo fled with his most trusted men to a nearby condo.

A few days later, just before Christmas, 200 government commandos descended on the condo in armored trucks and helicopters. Armed with only half a dozen men and a few grenades, Arturo barricaded himself inside, cowering next to his statue of Guadalupe. Grabbing the phone, he called Barbie. There was no way he was going to surrender, he declared. He begged his friend to send more men to back him up.

This time, though, Barbie didn't obey his boss. In fact, he didn't seem particularly interested in helping his friend and patron. He told Arturo the situation was hopeless, and urged him to turn himself in. "Why fight?" he said. "You could die."

"No way, no way," Arturo said. He was going to shoot his way out of the condo, he told Barbie, or die trying.

Within hours, Arturo's body was riddled with bullets, his face blown to smithereens. According to one law-enforcement source, the commandos had no intention of taking him alive, and he was killed in the chaos of the raid. U.S. officials considered it one of the biggest victories to date in the drug war. "Arturo wasn't a big fish," boasted Anthony Placido, the chief of intelligence for the Drug Enforcement Administration. "He was a whale."

The Beltráns wasted no time in retaliating. The night of the funeral for a commando who had been killed in the raid, assassins went to the home of the soldier's family and machine-gunned his mother, sister, aunt and brother in their sleep, leaving behind nearly three dozen spent bullet casings. The Beltráns also began to wonder if someone close to them had played a role in their brother's death. "Arturo Beltrán was very secure in that area, and had total control," says Francisco Gomez, a crime reporter with El Universal newspaper in Mexico City. "Arturo couldn't have gone down unless somebody close betrayed him."

Héctor, the Beltrán brother who took over the cartel, thought he knew who that was. Someone close to Arturo, who stood to advance from his death. Someone with no blood ties to the family. Someone who was not even Mexican. "Héctor immediately blamed Barbie," says a law-enforcement source. "He condemned Barbie, and put out the word that he wanted him killed."

Héctor decided to strengthen his ties to the Zetas. For protection, Barbie allied himself with a chiseled trafficker named the Indian, a powerful lieutenant in the Beltrán cartel. He also turned to El Charro, the father of his new wife, Priscilla, who reluctantly agreed to support his son-in-law. Barbie dreamed of fighting off the Beltráns and running his own independent operation, just as he had as a young buck back in Nuevo Laredo. He was done with the Mexican cartels, he said – too much of a headache. In 2010, he started his own outfit, the Independent Acapulco Cartel. The former linebacker from Texas was now a full-fledged Mexican drug lord.

But taking on the Beltráns meant fighting the Mexican army, whose support often went to the highest bidder. Shortly after Barbie declared his independence, the authorities raided his high-rise complex in Acapulco. Alerted by his outer security, Barbie escaped downstairs as the soldiers burst into the apartment. He fled on a motorcycle wearing a backpack full of grenades. "Look at me!" he yelled. "I'm Rambo!"

A former associate shakes his head at the story. "He was totally amped," Barbie's man recalls. "That was when we realized our boss was out of his goddamn mind."

As Barbie struggled to maintain control of Acapulco, the war with the Beltráns escalated. Decapitated bodies were hung from bridges. Thirteen people, including five police officers, were killed on a holiday weekend. An eight-year-old was gunned down during a shootout on Acapulco's main tourist drag. Hundreds of people were killed as Barbie tried to carve out his own turf. Sometimes the bloodshed was personal: When four bodies, one of them headless, were dumped on a sidewalk, a note attached to the corpses mocked Barbie for his fashion sense and fussy grooming. "Here are your homosexuals," it read. "This will happen to all the traitors and those who support you."

Just as Barbie had once failed to seize control of Nuevo Laredo from the Zetas, he now found himself losing ground against the Beltráns. He suffered a major setback when the Indian was captured by the Mexican police. His men were always making boneheaded mistakes – including one that threatened to unravel everything Barbie had worked to build.

For years, one of Barbie's best "customers" was Craig Petties, a violent cocaine dealer from Memphis accused of murdering six police informants. The half brother of DJ Paul, founder of the rap group Three 6 Mafia, Petties had fled the U.S. after he was caught with 600 pounds of marijuana in his home. In Mexico, he hung out with Barbie until he was arrested by the police for a minor infraction. According to a source close to the case, that was when one of Barbie's assassins, Carlos Guajardo, waltzed into the prison to ask how much money the jailers wanted to spring Petties. Unfortunately for Guajardo, he happened to ask the question of an honest Mexican jailer, who promptly arrested him. When the cops ran his name, they learned that Guajardo went by the nickname the Blackboard, because he had a huge tattoo of Jesus on his back, underlined with the phrase ONLY GOD CAN JUDGE ME. They also found the U.S. warrant for Petties, which they had missed the first time. Both Petties and Guajardo were shipped back to America to stand trial.

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