MEXICO CITY — Mexican marines killed a reputed Gulf cartel leader and one of Mexico's most-wanted drug lords in a spectacular, hours-long gunbattle near the U.S. border, the latest in a growing number of hits on the country's drug kingpins.
Antonio Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen, also known as "Tony Tormenta" or "Tony the Storm," was killed Friday along with four of his gunmen and three marines in the city of Matamoros, across the border from Brownsville, Texas, the Mexican navy said in a statement.
Among the casualties were three marines and a local reporter. On its website, the Matamoros newspaper El Expreso identified the reporter as Carlos Guajardo.
President Barack Obama telephoned his Mexican counterpart, Felipe Calderon, Saturday to reaffirm Washington's support for Mexico's efforts to fight the cartels and express his condolences for the Mexican troops and the reporter killed in the shootouts, according to a White House statement.
Also Saturday, dozens of ominous banners apparently hung by rivals appeared in cities across the Mexican gulf coast with messages gloating about his demise.
The signs, hung on pedestrian bridges and other public places but quickly taken down by authorities, reinforced fears that Cardenas Guillen's death will further empower the Zetas, a gang of hit men formed more than a decade ago by renegade Mexican soldiers that has become one of Mexico's most brutal and feared drug gangs.
Drug gangs used vehicles to block several roads in the nearby city of Reynosa, across the border from McAllen, Texas, on Saturday, according to Twitter messages sent out by the city government warning residents to be careful.
It was unclear if the roadblocks were related to the shootings Friday. City governments in Tamaulipas — reacting to violence that is often between federal forces and drug gangs — routinely warn citizens of roadblocks and shootouts through Twitter messages.
Cardenas Guillen, 48, is believed to have run the powerful cartel along with Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez, moving cocaine and marijuana into the United States.
He had been indicted on drug-trafficking charges in the United States, where authorities had offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his arrest. Mexican authorities offered a $2 million reward and had him on their list of the nation's most-wanted drug traffickers.
The deceased trafficker's brother Osiel Cardenas Guillen led the Gulf cartel until his arrest by Mexican authorities in a similarly violent shootout in Matamoros in 2003. Osiel was extradited to the United States in 2007 and sentenced to 25 years in prison by a Texas court in February.
Cardenas Guillen's death is a major boost to Calderon's war on drug cartels.
Arturo Beltran Leyva, leader of the Beltran Leyva cartel, died in a raid outside Mexico City on Dec. 16. Mexican soldiers killed the Sinaloa cartel's No. 3 capo, Ignacio "Nacho" Coronel, on July 29. On Aug. 30, federal police announced the capture of Edgar Valdez Villarreal, alias "La Barbie," and on Sept. 12 Mexican marines captured Sergio Villarreal Barragan, another presumed Beltran Leyva leader.
More than 28,000 Mexicans have been killed in drug-related violence since Calderon launched a national assault on organized crime in late 2006. The Committee to Protect Journalists said in a recent report that at least 22 Mexican journalists have been killed since December 2006.