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Mexican drug lord netted during fierce gunbattle

Reputed drug lord Osiel Cardenas, who once threatened U.S. drug agents at gunpoint to get out of his territory, was arrested Friday after a fierce firefight with Mexican soldiers.

Three soldiers were wounded, one of them seriously, in the morning shootout with Cardenas' gunmen in Matamoros, across the border from Brownsville, Texas, said Mexico's defense secretary, Gen. Gerardo Vega Garcia.

Cardenas commanded at least 300 gunmen throughout the border state of Tamaulipas, but Vega did not say how many participated in the shootout. He did not say whether anyone else was arrested.

"Obviously, they put up resistance," Vega said, adding that Cardenas' arrest followed six months of intelligence work.

The 35-year-old Cardenas, who had a $2-million bounty on his head, allegedly led the Gulf of Mexico cartel and was the third major drug boss toppled in the past year, Vega said.

Asked if Cardenas' arrest would bring down the cartel, Vega said, "I don't think so. . . . Logically, someone is going to step up to fill the hole produced (by Cardenas' arrest), but we'll be investigating them, too."

Cardenas is wanted by the FBI on organized crime, drug, money laundering and assaulting federal agents charges. Mexico has received a U.S. request for Cardenas' extradition, but Vega said Cardenas "will face justice here in Mexico first" on drug, weapons and homicide charges.

Mexico generally extradites citizens as long they do not face a life sentence or the death penalty. Cardenas was flown to an undisclosed location to await arraignment.

Cardenas is believed to be linked to the killings of four Mexican antidrug agents in recent months.

But what most infuriated U.S. authorities was Cardenas' detention of two Drug Enforcement Administration agents investigating him in 1999. His henchmen surrounded the agents' car on a Matamoros street and forced them to stop at gunpoint.

The gunmen, some wearing Mexican police uniforms, kept their assault rifles trained on the DEA agents and their Mexican informant until a man identified as Cardenas emerged from the crowd. He demanded that the U.S. agents hand over the informant for execution.

"This is my territory," he was quoted as telling the agents. "You can't control it."

The Americans refused to hand over the informant to certain death and eventually were allowed to drive away _ reportedly after telling Cardenas it would be a bad idea to kill U.S. agents. A $2-million reward was then offered for his capture.

The Gulf Cartel, which operates in northeastern Mexico, moves cocaine and marijuana into the United States, officials said, and was the strongest of the border cartels until 1996, when leader Juan Garcia Abrego was sentenced in Houston to 11 life terms for drug smuggling.