By Dan Slater for The New Yorker. In 2006, a Texan named Edgar Valdez Villarreal was at an inflection point in his drug-smuggling career. Valdez was thirty-three and known as La Barbie for his blond hair and blue eyes, the fair-skinned look that Mexicans call güero. A former high-school linebacker from Laredo, he had spent about fifteen years shipping marijuana, and later, cocaine, to Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. During the late nineteen-nineties, he was one of many smugglers operating across the border, in Nuevo Laredo, the largest inland port in Mexico. The drug trade had been relatively peaceful. Each smuggler paid sixty thousand dollars a month to the local plaza boss, a man named Dionisio García, known as El Chacho, who in turn paid the bribes that insured the trafficking routes.
But in 2000, the Gulf cartel began to take over Nuevo Laredo, and gave every crook in town an option: join or die. El Chacho was killed, and La Barbie fled to Acapulco. He joined a clan from western Mexico, the Beltrán-Leyva brothers, who were associates of the powerful Sinaloa cartel, led by Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known as El Chapo. La Barbie prospered with the Beltrán Leyva cartel, a group of four brothers led by Arturo Beltrán Leyva, known to authorities as A.B.L. Government sources say the group imported about forty tons of coke per month through the southern port at Zihuatanejo. La Barbie, together with the Beltrán Leyvas and the Sinaloans, warred against the Gulf cartel for control of Nuevo Laredo. La Barbie orchestrated a bold public-relations campaign on behalf of his crew: he placed newspaper ads and editorials denouncing their rivals, and was supposedly responsible for making a viral video documenting the execution of four assassins who’d been sent to Acapulco to kill him. Soon, he acquired a global reputation as a top player. But by 2006, as the new Mexican President, Felipe Calderón, promised an assault on drug cartels, it became clear that La Barbie’s side had lost.