- Associated Press - Thursday, September 27, 2012

MEXICO CITY — Mexican officials say they have struck a major blow against a faction of the hyper-violent Zetas cartel, arresting one of the country’s most-wanted suspected drug traffickers, Ivan Velazquez Caballero, known as “El Taliban,” and placing him on display in a Thursday morning news conference.

The arrest follows a bloody internal battle involving top Zetas leader Miguel Angel Trevino Morales and other cartel leaders. Officials have said the split was behind a recent surge in massacres and shootouts, particularly in northern Mexico.

Masked marines displayed the burly, handcuffed Velazquez Caballero alongside two alleged accomplices and a table of guns and other contraband seized during his arrest.

He is the third alleged cartel leader arrested this month. All are accused of leading factions of the Gulf Cartel or Zetas, former allies now feuding over valuable smuggling territory along the U.S. border.

The alleged heads of the two main factions of the Gulf group, Maria Cardenas Guillen and Jorge Eduardo Costillo Sanchez, also were seized in navy operations in northern Mexico.

In the waning months of President Felipe Calderon’s presidency, the arrests add to the list of cartel figures taken out of action as part of his U.S.-backed strategy of removing the leadership of drug-smuggling organizations.

Mr. Calderon and the Obama administration say the strategy is working, but many independent groups say it has helped fuel a massive surge in violence nationwide by fracturing and destabilizing cartels and spawning deadly fights over territory.

The Zetas are one of Mexico’s two most powerful cartels. The head of the other, Sinaloa cartel head Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, remains free, and there have been far fewer arrests of his associates.

Navy spokesman Jose Luis Vergara said marines acting on unspecified intelligence were conducting patrols in a neighborhood in the city of San Luis Potosi when they spotted a group of men leaving a house. When the men spotted the marines, they moved suspiciously back into the house, Mr. Vergara said, and marines followed and arrested Mr. Velazquez Caballero and two other men inside.

Also known as “Z-50,” Mr. Velazquez Caballero has a $2.3 million reward on his head.

The arrest could calm some of the brutal violence that has hit border cities like Nuevo Laredo, across from Laredo, Texas, in recent weeks, although Mexican officials said they believed fighting could restart in coming weeks or months as a fight begins for Mr. Velazquez Caballero’s former territory.

On Sept. 14, eight men were found shot to death and one hanging from a bridge in Nuevo Laredo, territory officials say was traditionally controlled by Trevino Morales, alias “Z-40.”

Analysts say 14 bullet-ridden bodies stuffed in a van in mid-August in San Luis Potosi were men loyal to “El Taliban,” and may have been left there as a warning by Mr. Trevino Morales’ underlings.

Discussing recent fighting, a U.S. official in Mexico who could not be named for security reason said earlier this week that “I think right now the uptick that I’m seeing is between ‘40’ and ‘50,’ ” referring to Mr. Trevino Morales and Mr. Velazquez Caballero by their “Z” aliases.

The Zetas cartel takes its name from a police radio code in which “Z” means “commander,” and a number refers to rank.

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