Mexico landed its third blow against the country's most wanted drug trafficker in as many months after capturing a suspected lieutenant of Joaquin Shorty Guzman, boss of the powerful Sinaloa cartel.
On Monday, masked Mexican soldiers presented Felipe Cabrera, known as el Inge, to the media following his capture in Culiacan, capital of Sinaloa, the northwestern Pacific state after which the drug cartel is named.
Cabrera, whose nickname is an abbreviation of the Spanish word for engineer, was the second suspected Guzman lieutenant to be seized there in the past two months. In October, the army captured a third Guzman ally in the city.
These are blows to the (Sinaloa) organization, but the structure for drug trafficking and money laundering is still intact, Alberto Islas, a security expert at consultancy Risk Evaluation, said after Cabrera's media parade in Mexico City.
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In what may have been another bitter pill for Guzman, the government said later on Monday the navy had seized 21 tonnes of monomethylamine - a compound used to make methamphetamines - in the Pacific port of Manzanillo, traditionally his turf.
The shipment may have been intended for Guzman given that several others belonging to him had been seized there, one official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Islas said the haul, which was intercepted on its way from Peru to Guatemala - where the Sinaloa cartel is also active - was probably worth at least $50 million in unprocessed form.
President Felipe Calderon's conservative administration has been dominated by a military crackdown on drug cartels, which has claimed over 45,000 lives in the past five years, eroding support for his National Action Party, or PAN.
The PAN has been trailing its main rival for months as Mexico gears up for a presidential election in July 2012.
The government has captured or killed dozens of top smugglers, but Guzman, the most notorious, is still at large.
Defence ministry spokesman Ricardo Trevilla hailed the arrest of Cabrera as a setback for the operational and leadership capabilities of the Sinaloa cartel, regarded as the main trafficker of drugs into the United States.
The ministry said Cabrera was in charge of the cartel's operations in Durango, a state bordering Sinaloa and Guzman bastion where the kingpin has been rumoured to live.
Guzman runs an empire of methamphetamine, marijuana and cocaine smuggling that has earned him a spot on Forbes magazine's list of billionaires.
The ministry added that Cabrera also had responsibility for the southern part of the border state of Chihuahua, through which many drugs are smuggled into the United States.
Cabrera, who allegedly headed Guzman's personal security in the Durango area, is suspected of involvement in a host of violent crimes ranging from arson to kidnapping and extortion.
He was captured on Friday as part of an operation which led to the arrest of 23 suspected operators in the Sinaloa cartel and their bitter rivals, Los Zetas.
(Editing by Eric Beech)