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Mexico Seizes Crime Boss El Marro, Under Pressure to Cut Violence

MEXICO CITY — The Mexican federal authorities captured José Antonio Yépez, the criminal boss known as El Marro, on Sunday, landing a major blow against a cartel whose struggle for control helped spur record violence in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

After his arrest in an early-morning raid, low-resolution photographs of his capture were released by law enforcement agencies eager to highlight the latest success in their campaign against organized crime.

What is less clear is whether Mr. Yépez’s imprisonment will make any meaningful difference in the violence that has subsumed Mexico — or in the prevalence of organized crime more broadly.

“This is basically a short-lived P.R. victory, but it doesn’t provide a solution,” said Falko Ernst, a Mexico analyst for the International Crisis Group. “The big worry is that there is no backing in terms of a more cohesive security strategy.”

Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has been dogged by criticism that he almost completely lacks a security strategy. When challenged about rising violence and the government’s response to it, Mr. López Obrador has always said he would take a nonconfrontational approach that focused on the causes of crime: hugs and not bullets, in the president’s words.

The strategy, such as it is, is at its core a reaction to the failed strategies of his predecessors. Since 2006, when the Mexican government declared a war on drugs, it has focused on arresting and killing traffickers. And yet in the first months of this year, Mexico registered more homicides than at any point in the last two decades.

The president, also known by his initials, AMLO, vowed not to conduct arrests as public spectacles, or otherwise continue on the same path as previous leaders. But the sudden arrest of Mr. Yépez, the leader of the Santa Rosa de Lima cartel, seems to run contrary to that mantra.

“It shows how desperate AMLO is to show he is doing something,” said David Shirk, a professor of political science at the University of San Diego. “The fact is he just did something that he said he would never do. It’s the same old playbook as before.”

The Santa Rosa de Lima cartel began its reign in the state of Guanajuato, pilfering oil from pipelines that crisscross that area of central Mexico and siphoning off amounts estimated at one point to be valued at nearly $2 million a day.

As the head of a small start-up cartel, which analysts say was largely run as a family crime group, Mr. Yépez showed uncharacteristic pluck, challenging both the government and much larger and more diversified criminal groups.

In emotional videos, Mr. Yépez has often lashed out at his enemies and even threatened the president himself if federal troops were not withdrawn from his native state, where they had been sent to fight fuel theft.

But the government of Mr. López Obrador, which has placed paramount importance on the oil economy, kept targeting the oil racket. Already this year, the authorities had arrested Mr. Yépez’s mother and sister, prompting additional emotional videos.

The revenue from the oil theft, meanwhile, was too lucrative for other criminal organizations to resist — specifically the much larger and more prominent New Generation cartel of Jalisco. The fight between the two groups made Guanajuato the country’s deadliest state last year, with more than 3,000 killings. This year, it is on track to exceed that figure.

“We are talking about a state with 12 homicides a day, and 360 murders in the last month alone,” said Eduardo Guerrero, a security analyst in Mexico City. “That’s 15 percent of the nation’s homicides.”

The New Generation cartel also tried to assassinate the head of security in Mexico City in a brazen daytime fusillade in June.

Mr. Yépez’s arrest is certain to set off the shifting of key criminal players in the state of Guanajuato, the forging of new alliances and a splintering of groups.

Past captures of kingpins have seldom improved the dynamic in Mexico. New players enter, old ones exit and the same patterns repeat on a loop. Drugs flow north of the border, guns flow south and Mexicans die in the arbitration of who gets to control what.

The authorities similarly crowed about the conviction of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the drug lord known as El Chapo, who was sentenced last year to life in prison in the United States. And yet the fight waged by the New Generation cartel for primacy since his departure has left more bodies than ever in its wake.

No one knows what will follow this most recent arrest. Analysts are split.

In one possible outcome, infighting among the remnants of the Santa Rosa de Lima cartel could lead to a greater fracturing and diffusion — and therefore increases — in violence.

In another, the New Generation takes over, gains control over the state and violence drops because it has no rivals.

“A reduction in violence there would be a very important achievement for the federal government,” Mr. Guerrero said.

Natalie Kitroeff and Paulina Villegas contributed reporting.

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