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.”
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.
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.
With his allies dwindling, Barbie was once again on the run. He moved back and forth between Acapulco and Cuernavaca and Mexico City, rarely staying anywhere for more than a night, and started looking for a new country that would take him in. He wasn’t comfortable as a hunted man – he couldn’t enjoy his wealth, or party at nightclubs, or go to fancy restaurants. One day, desperate to go out and do something, anything, he told one of his men to put on a baseball cap and drive him to the main tourist strip in Acapulco. They bought ice cream cones and walked down the street with its T-shirt stands and tourist shops, the sun warming their faces. After a half-hour, though, Barbie started to get nervous. There, was that person looking at him, over by the street corner? Was that a sniper, there on that roof? Barbie retreated to his car, more sullen than ever.
Not long afterward, the federales showed up at one of Barbie’s homes near Acapulco. He wasn’t there, but they roughed up Priscilla and her mother, which scared him badly. He thought about turning himself in, but couldn’t bring himself to do it. Then, a few weeks later, one of Barbie’s assistants was pulled over by the police on the way to a carwash in Mexico City. Two officers jumped out of their black truck, guns drawn. “Freeze, motherfucker!” they screamed. They demanded to know where Barbie was. “Where is that son of a bitch?” one officer said. “Don’t bullshit, or I’ll cut off your balls and feed them to you.” The cops informed the man that they had apprehended his family on their way to the vet with a sick dog. Terrified, the assistant caved. Barbie was at a ranch house on a secluded lot, he told them. Police descended on the hide-out, and Barbie was seized while he was trying to flee through a side door.
The police paraded Barbie around the station so the press could get plenty of photos, which were soon splashed all over the media. President Calderón tweeted the news, reveling in the capture: Barbie was one more name he could cross off his list of the 37 “most wanted” drug lords. For the past few years, Calderón has focused on big-name drug arrests like Barbie’s, but it’s unclear whether the strategy is working. To date, more than 45,000 people have been killed in Mexico’s drug war, and the death toll continues to rise.
At first, Barbie was confined to a temporary holding cell in Mexico City, where his lawyer was allowed to bring him moisturizer, Crocs and fresh polo shirts. But these days, he is being held in one of the most violent prisons in Mexico, charged with murder, money laundering and trafficking illegal narcotics. He is locked in solitary confinement almost 24 hours a day, a video camera monitoring his every move. He isn’t allowed visitors, nor contact with other prisoners. Once or twice a week, officers wearing ski masks and toting machine guns remove him for a shower. He gets a phone call every 10 days.
The Mexican government agreed in November to extradite Barbie to the U.S., where he faces charges in Atlanta, New Orleans and Laredo. So far, though, there’s no sign he’ll be handed over to the Americans anytime soon. “According to the Mexicans, he was supposed to be back in the U.S. in 60 days,” says Barbie’s attorney, Kent Schaffer. “But since they’ve consistently lied, that could be anywhere from 120 days to three years – if they don’t kill him.” A U.S. investigator reports that Barbie has been “severely beaten” while in custody.
Barbie was shocked to discover that his own country didn’t want to save him. In his twisted self-image, he’s still an all-American good guy. According to several law-enforcement sources familiar with the case, Barbie has secretly been talking to the DEA for at least two years. He was the one, it turns out, who betrayed Arturo Beltrán, telling the cops where they could find the drug kingpin. Barbie apparently wanted Arturo gone so he could take over the Beltrán cartel – but he was also trying to cut a deal with the DEA, just in case things didn’t work out and he was forced to turn himself in. “He wanted to use his information as a bargaining chip,” says a law-enforcement source.
Once or twice a year, Barbie would call the DEA, or his older brother, Abel, a former probation officer in Texas, would call on his behalf. In return for surrendering, Barbie wanted immunity and permission to bring $5 million into the U.S. “The DEA made overtures to Edgar, and they told him they could do all sorts of things,” says Schaffer. “But they never cleared it with the Justice Department, so they didn’t have the authority to do it.”
Now, after years of stalling, Barbie has discovered it’s too late to cut a deal. All his information is old, and much of his network has been captured or killed – even Priscilla’s dad, who confessed to ordering the murders of 20 tourists last year, because he thought they were members of a rival cartel. Wherever Barbie winds up facing trial, no one expects him to receive less than life in prison. In Memphis, his old customer Petties may be willing to turn evidence against him, to avoid the death penalty for murdering four rivals.
In Laredo, Barbie’s family is hopeful that he will end up in a prison near them. But since he was arrested, they have reportedly started to squabble among themselves. Barbie’s parents now live in a mansion in a lovely, upscale development of Laredo, all curving streets and mowed lawns. Several Porsches and Lexuses are parked in the driveway. It’s a far cry from the tiny home where they raised their son Edgar, a fun-loving kid who liked football and beer and driving too fast. His father, a lithe man with sparkling green eyes, is careful to distance himself from the boy who became La Barbie. “I’m not the judge, or the confessor,” he says, a smile playing around his lips. “At this point, this is between my son and God.”
Before he was captured, Barbie did have a bit of good news: He was going to have his first baby girl, his second child with Priscilla. His daughter was born in a hospital in Laredo. He couldn’t be there; it was simply too dangerous for him to come to Texas. But he was glad it happened that way. He wanted her to be an American citizen.
This story is from the September 1, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.