- The Washington Times - Friday, December 18, 2009

CUERNAVACA, Mexico | Two hundred Mexican marines stormed an upscale apartment complex and killed a reputed drug cartel chief in a two-hour gunbattle, one of the biggest victories yet in President Felipe Calderon’s war on drugs.

Arturo Beltran Leyva, the “boss of bosses,” and six members of his cartel died in the shootout Wednesday in Cuernavaca, south of Mexico City, according to a navy statement Thursday.

The body of one cartel member was found on the ground outside the third-floor apartment, after he apparently committed suicide during the shootout.

Cartel gunmen hurled grenades that killed one marine and wounded two others, one of whom is in serious condition, the navy said. Two women and one man were detained during the raid, and five assault weapons were seized.

An Associated Press reporter at the scene heard at least 10 explosions during the firefight, which residents said lasted at least 90 minutes. Witnesses said the raid began when marines rappelled down ropes onto the roofs of some of the apartment buildings at dusk.

Reporters were briefly allowed inside the apartment where Beltran Leyva’s body still lay early Thursday; his skull and one arm were mangled by bullet wounds, and in one hand he clutched a large gold-colored medallion.

“First they were asked to surrender, but they didn’t yield and they opened fire,” said one of the masked marines who participated in the raid, and who was not authorized to give his name.

Mr. Calderon, speaking from the Copenhagen climate summit, said “this action represents an important achievement for the government and people of Mexico, and a resounding blow against one of the most dangerous criminal organizations in Mexico, and on the continent.”

Residents of the apartment complex said the raid appeared carefully planned. Sailors went door-to-door before the gun battle to quietly evacuate residents to the gym.

Beltran Leyva is the highest-ranking figure taken down under Mr. Calderon, who has deployed more than 45,000 troops across Mexico to crush the cartels since taking office in December 2006. Mexico’s navy often has been used in the battle as well. The offensive has earned Mr. Calderon praise from Washington even as 14,000 people have been killed in a wave of drug-related violence.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said the Beltran Leyva cartel has smuggled tons of cocaine into the United States, as well as large quantities of heroin.

The Mexican government had offered a $2.1 million reward for Beltran Leyva’s capture.

U.S. officials said the Beltran Leyva cartel has carried out heinous killings, including numerous beheadings of rival traffickers or kidnappers invading what the gang considered its turf.

Mr. Calderon described Beltran Leyva as “one of the three most-wanted” drug suspects in Mexico. By most estimates, the other two - both still at large - are Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada.

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