MEXICO CITY — The Mexican army said Thursday it had captured a top drug cartel lieutenant who allegedly ordered an arson attack on a casino that killed 52 people in August.
Carlos Oliva Castillo, alias "The Frog," a reputed leader of the extremely violent Zetas cartel, was detained by soldiers Wednesday in the northern city of Saltillo, said Defense Department spokesman Ricardo Trevilla. He has not yet been formally charged.
Zetas gunmen opened fire on security forces in an attempt to distract soldiers and rescue Castillo, a sign of his importance to the criminal organization, Col. Trevilla added. The firing went on for several hours and caused panic in the city. Drug cartel gunmen in Mexico rarely attack authorities in a bid to free arrested leaders.
Oliva Castillo allegedly led the gang on its home turf, in the northern Gulf coast state of Tamaulipas, as well as in the important northern battleground states of Coahuila and Nuevo Leon. He ranked third in importance to the two top Zeta leaders, Heriberto "Lazca" Lazcano and Miguel Angel Trevino, Trevilla said.
The stocky 37-year-old was flown to Mexico City and presented, handcuffed and tightlipped, to the news media. Trevilla said there are "several pieces of evidence" indicating that Oliva Castillo ordered a subordinate, Francisco Medina Mejia, to pour gasoline in and set fire to the Royale casino in the northern city of Monterrey on Aug. 25.
Investigators have identified or arrested more than a dozen suspects in the attack, which they say appears to have been triggered by the owners' refusal to pay protection money to the Zetas.
Oliva Castillo was detained along with his presumed girlfriend and his chief bodyguard at a safe house where soldiers found two rifles and pistols.
The reputed cartel leader also acted as the Zetas head accountant, receiving money from different criminal enterprises, said federal prosecutors' spokesman Octavio Campos.
Campos said prosecutors had received an anonymous tip about Oliva Castillo's activities along with a photo of him.
The Zetas organization was formed by deserters from an elite military unit in the 1990s and acted as the armed wing of the Gulf drug cartel in Tamaulipas before the two gangs split in 2010 and started bloody turf wars in several states, including Nuevo Leon, where Monterrey is located. Lazcano and Trevino remain at large, and authorities have offered a 30 million-peso ($2.25 million) reward for each of their arrests.
A law enforcement offensive in the three northern states since late August has resulted in 724 arrests, the freeing of 36 kidnap victims, and the seizure of 1,629 guns, 165 grenades, and more than 27.5 tons of marijuana, Trevilla told a news conference.