Mexican President López Obrador makes cartel hitman ‘La Barbie’ a matter of state

Washington has been asked to clarify the whereabouts of Édgar Valdez Villarreal after the convicted drug-trafficker vanished from Federal Bureau of Prisons databases

The President of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, during his morning conference on November 30, 2022.
The President of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, during his morning conference on November 30, 2022.Isaac Esquivel (EFE)

The whereabouts of notorious cartel chief Édgar Valdez Villarreal remains a mystery, and have now become a matter of state. Valdez Villarreal, who is nicknamed “La Barbie” due to his fair complexion and blond hair, is one of the most violent drug traffickers in Mexican history and is serving a 49-year sentence at a high-security penitentiary in Florida after being sentenced for several drug-related offenses and money-laundering at a 2018 trial in Atlanta, Georgia. However, alarm bells have sounded in Mexico after Valdez Villarreal disappeared from the databases of the United States Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), which contains the details of all inmates serving sentences in penitentiaries under its jurisdiction.

“What is happening in the United States with Mr. Villarreal is strange,” said Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador during a press conference on Wednesday. “Someone has made it known that he is no longer in the registry of prisoners and we want to know where he is.” López Obrador asked Washington for transparency and said the situation needed to be clarified as quickly as possible. “There is no reason for him to leave prison because his sentence is for many years, unless there has been an agreement.”

The hypothesis that La Barbie has struck a deal with the US authorities is gaining traction in light of the upcoming trial in New York of Genaro García Luna, who served as Secretary of Public Security during the administration of Felipe Calderón (2006-2012). García Luna is due to appear in court in January over accusations of his alleged links with the cartels. Valdez Villarreal was arrested in 2010 in Lerma, a suburb of Mexico City, in an operation orchestrated by García Luna and over the past 12 years he has made several accusations about collusion between organized crime and Calderón’s government. “I know for a fact that he has received money from me, from drug trafficking and organized crime,” La Barbie wrote in a letter from his Mexico prison cell to journalist Anabel Hernández in 2012.

The US authorities have as yet provided no information on the status of Valdez Villarrea – who was born in Texas and holds both US and Mexican nationality – or confirmed if he has agreed to a cooperation deal. ”If there has been an agreement, in any case, we would have to act if there are complaints in Mexico,” said López Obrador. “The US government has to clarify [the situation] as soon as possible.”

Édgar "La Barbie" Valdez Villarreal after his arrest in August 2010.
Édgar "La Barbie" Valdez Villarreal after his arrest in August 2010. Daniel Aguilar (Getty Images)

A spokesperson for the BOP told EL PAÍS there are “a number of reasons why an inmate may be listed as ‘not in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons.’” Among these are routine matters such as medical check-ups or court hearings. “We do not provide specific information about the status of prisoners who are not in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons for security or privacy reasons,” the spokesperson added.

La Barbie is serving a sentence that runs until 2056 at the Coleman II high-security penitentiary in central Florida. Consulted by EL PAÍS, one of the lawyers who represents him, stated he had no knowledge of his client’s whereabouts. “Who goes through a list of millions of prisoners? Nobody, this was a leak. To what end? That is what we need to find out,” added López Obrador.

The Mexican president’s statements have made it clear, between the lines, that his government is not happy about the possibility that the United States has offered a deal to La Barbie, a former member of the Sinaloa Cartel and the Beltrán Leyva Cartel who is suspected of dozens of assassinations, without first consulting Mexico. López Obrador pointed out there is an outstanding arrest warrant in force in Mexico against Valdez Villarreal, who among other tasks for the cartels once headed up the Beltrán Leyva organization’s professional hitmen.

Since the beginning of 2022, Washington has been pushing the López Obrador administration to increase the number of extraditions per year to the US, with a target of 60 annually, as reported by EL PAÍS based on the massive hack of emails from the Mexican Secretariat of National Defense.

Nothing has yet been confirmed as to the status of La Barbie, but speculation is rife. The range of possibilities to explain his absence from US prison records extends from the most grandiloquent - a deal to enter the US Federal Witness Protection Program or even an early release – to the merely routine, such a hospital admission. “There has been no clarification on the subject, but we will continue to ask to be informed,” said López Obrador.

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