Mexicans arrest alleged drug kingpin wanted in Atlanta

His fair skin and blue eyes made Edgar Valdez Villarreal resemble a Ken doll and earned him the nickname "La Barbie."

But there was nothing playful about this allegedly brutal drug lord who federal authorities said ran a drug operation that brought cocaine by the truckload to Atlanta and sent those trucks back to a Mexican cartel carrying millions of dollars in cash.

Valdez was arrested Monday in a residential area outside Mexico City, U.S. and Mexican authorities said. It was a big enough break in Mexico's war with the drug cartels that Mexican President Felipe Calderon announced the arrest of "La Barbie" on his Twitter account, calling Valdez one of the most-wanted criminals in Mexico and abroad.

For years, the 37-year-old Valdez has used Atlanta as a major distribution hub to flood the eastern United States with thousands of kilograms of cocaine, according to a federal indictment here. When that indictment was unsealed in June, the U.S. Justice Department announced that it was putting up $2 million for information leading to the arrest of Valdez.

Federal authorities said the drug-laden trucks that Valdez sent to Atlanta began their journey 1,100 miles away at a border crossing in Laredo, Texas.

In Mexico, Valdez has been blamed for bloody drug and gang turf wars in which rivals were beheaded and hung from bridges.

With his good looks, luxury cars and fine clothes, Valdez achieved a sort of cult status among those involved in the Mexican drug trade.

His story is unlike that of the typical top-level cartel boss.

First, he's the rare American who has risen through the cartel ranks. Raised in an upper middle class home in Laredo, Valdez was a high school football star whose coach had dubbed him "The Barbie."

Authorities said Valdez began selling marijuana in Laredo and later crossed the border, eventually climbing the rungs of the violent Beltran Leyva cartel.

Valdez began battling for control of that cartel in December, Mexican authorities said, when cartel leader Arturo Beltran Leyva was killed in a shootout with the Mexican military at a resort south of Mexico City.

"In many ways, he comes across as the kind of figure who is right out of a ‘Miami Vice' kind of TV show," said Fred Burton, a former State Department counterterrorism agent and now a vice president for Stratfor Global Intelligence. "He comes from a nice family and a good background but turns into this narco warlord."

Valdez was charming and savvy, but also brutal when he needed to be, said Burton, who has followed Valdez's rise to prominence. Being bilingual and an American, Valdez could also likely open doors many Mexicans in the drug trade could not.

"All of this has just added to his mystique," he said. "And maybe it helps you see how a kid like this could go from ‘Friday Night Lights' to become one of ‘them.' "

On Tuesday,  Rodney G. Benson, the special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration's office in Atlanta, congratulated Mexican authorities for the arrest. "The capture of Edgar Valdez strikes at the core of Mexican drug cartel leadership," he said.

U.S. Attorney Sally Yates said the U.S. Justice Department will work closely with the Mexican government to determine the most appropriate place to prosecute the alleged kingpin. But she said she hopes to get the chance to try him in Atlanta.

Law enforcement authorities in the metro area were alerted to Valdez during a wiretap investigation of other members of the cartel. In the federal indictment, Valdez is charged with five others, including two others from Laredo, of drug distribution and money laundering. The group shipped thousands of kilograms through Atlanta from 2004 to 2006, the indictment said.

Only one of Valdez's co-defendants, Jesus Ramos, has been arrested. On Aug. 17, 2005, Ramos drove a tractor-trailer to a closed warehouse on South Cobb Drive, where he met two other men who loaded stuffed duffel bags into the truck, according to court documents. The next day, the Georgia State Patrol stopped Ramos' truck on I-85 south of Atlanta and seized the duffel bags, which were filled with more than $2.5 million in drug proceeds, authorities said.

Ramos, who pleaded guilty in June, has yet to be sentenced.

During a federal drug trial in 2008, witnesses linked cocaine shipments into Atlanta to Valdez and his cartel, according to court records. Witnesses testified that, on a weekly basis, truckloads hauling up to 300 kilograms of cocaine arrived in Atlanta and were stored at two Fulton County stash houses, one on Johnson Road and the other on Erin Road. During a search of the Erin Road house in November 2005, agents found 120 kilograms of cocaine, semiautomatic weapons and $1.5 million in cash, according to testimony.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.