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The life and death of Tony the Storm

In a day-long gunfight, Mexican forces killed a top drugs baron. But that won't end the violence

Even by the surreal standards of the war on drugs cartels, this was something special. Antonio Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen, alias "Tony Storm", a man with $7m on his head, was killed in a gun battle in Matamoros, near the border with Brownsville, Texas, late on Friday. This being Mexico, it took 150 marines, three helicopters and 17 armoured vehicles to do it.

It was on Friday morning that this considerable force, under the command of the Mexican navy, swarmed into the town. In any other country in the world, such a mass of arms being applied to one miscreant would be massive overkill, but not here. Behind the operation lay more than six months of intelligence gathering, which would have told the navy that the opposition would be not just a few hoodlums, but an entire private army.

So it was. The marines and their back-up were met with a fusillade of grenades, heavy fire from gunmen holed up in houses, and automatic weapons fire from men concealed in trucks. The gun battles continued throughout the city for hours, and lasted into the evening. A video posted on YouTube showed a string of SUVs and pickup trucks with gunmen racing through an empty street while continuous shooting was heard in the background. Men wearing ski masks got out of a car and used it to block the street. A soldier and a local reporter were killed, and, across the city, residents hunkered down, communicating via Facebook and Twitter. "Shelter, everyone! Don't leave your houses please. Spread the word," read one tweet.

At last, after the further deaths of three marines and four gunmen, Cardenas was cornered and killed. The man who had earned his nickname of "Tony Tormenta" (Tony Storm) for beheading and torturing rivals had run the powerful Gulf cartel – founded in Mexico in the 1930s to smuggle whisky and other contraband into the US – for seven years. He took over after his brother, Osiel Cardenas Guillen, was arrested by Mexican authorities in a similarly violent shootout in Matamoros in 2003. Osiel was extradited to the US in 2007 and sentenced to 25 years in prison in February.

The Gulf cartel dominates trafficking from north-eastern Mexico into Central America, has cells across the US, and is one of the warring drug factions that have turned modern Mexico into a study in ongoing carnage. More than 31,000 people have been killed since December 2006, when President Felipe Calderon launched his army-led crackdown. Mr Calderon's security spokesman, Alejandro Poire, said yesterday: "Today, we have taken another meaningful step toward the dismantling of criminal groups that do so much damage to our country."

Thus it is, in the fantastically murderous game of tit-for-tat that is the conflict between the authorities here and the drug barons, a momentary advantage to the former. Few specialists expect it to last, for the death of Cardenas is hardly a knockout blow. The drugs trade is too profitable, and there are too many involved in it for a few top-drawer eliminations to stem the bloody tide. This year has seen soldiers kill the Sinaloa cartel's No 3, Ignacio "Nacho" Coronel, on 29 July. On 30 August, federal police announced the capture of Edgar Valdez Villarreal, alias "La Barbie", and on 12 September, Mexican marines captured Sergio Villarreal Barragan, another presumed Beltran-Leyva cartel leader. And yet the bloodbaths continue.

For example, just one week – 25 October to 1 November – produced the following: four Americans were killed in separate attacks in the border city of Ciudad Juarez; the charred body of a Canadian businessman abducted from his Acapulco hotel was found inside the boot of a car; drug hitmen tossed grenades at four police stations in Monterrey, killing one passer-by; nine police died in an ambush by cartel hitmen outside Guadalajara; four men working in a Chihuahua nightclub were shot dead; a passer-by died when caught in crossfire in Monterrey; six were shot dead outside Mexico City; three women and a man were shot dead in a bus; 15 were killed at a car wash in Tepic; a police station at Ciudad was attacked; and four blindfolded bodies were found beside a road near the tourist city of Cuernavaca.

One of the centres of this mayhem is north-eastern Mexico. The area once controlled by the Gulf cartel has seen an increase in violence due to a turf battle between the cartel and the Zetas drug gang. That violence has spread into Mexico's richest city, Monterrey near the Texas border, in an escalation of the drug war that worries foreign investors.

Experts on the drugs trade – which generates up to $40bn a year in narcotics sales in the US alone – warned yesterday that the violence will continue as long as Mexico fails to reform the corrupt judicial, police and prison services that help to feed the cycle of killings. Mr Calderon has pledged reform but has failed to get initiatives through a divided Congress.

The scale of violence, especially that which takes its toll on US citizens, is causing Washington ever more concern. Two University of Texas students were gunned down as they drove through Ciudad Juarez on Tuesday. The killings followed the deaths of six Americans last Saturday.

Such killings are becoming more common even though most American tourists have stayed away from Ciudad Juarez since the drug-related violence surged in January 2008. Since then, more than 7,000 people have died there.

Mexico's most wanted

Joaquin 'Shorty' Guzman Head of Sinaloa cartel, escaped from prison in 2001. He has continually eluded capture, reportedly changing cellphones after every conversation and possibly having undergone plastic surgery to alter his appearance.

Ismael Zambada Guzman's right-hand man has never been captured in three decades as a top trafficker. Is believed to launder drug profits through a milk company, real estate holdings and a bus line. He has a $5m bounty on his head.

Heriberto Lazcano Is head of the Zetas, the former armed wing of the Gulf cartel. Once a member of Mexico's special forces, Lazcano has a huge arsenal and is rumoured to use tigers to scare victims.

Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Long-time head of the Juarez cartel. Brother of drug lord Amado Carrillo Fuentes, who flew airliners full of Colombian cocaine into Mexico in the 1990s.

Nazario Moreno Calls himself "the Craziest One", leads a cartel in Michoacan. He preaches Bible scripture mixed with self-help slogans to gang members.