Top Mexico drug boss killed in gun battle

200 marines bring down feared trafficker renowned for beheading his rivals

It took two hundred marines, dozens of armoured vehicles, 10 hand grenades, and several hundred machine-gun rounds. The house-to-house gun battle began early on Wednesday morning and lasted two hours. By the end, five men lay dead. One of them was Arturo Beltran Leyva. This is how you bring down one of the world's top drug barons.

Mexico's security forces are celebrating the assassination of Beltran Leyva, known by the nickname "boss of bosses", during a night-time raid on an upmarket block of flats in Cuernavaca, just south of the nation's capital. Three associates were killed and a fourth committed suicide during the closing stages of the shootout, a Navy spokesman claimed.

The killing marked the biggest victory yet for President Felipe Calderó*in his high-profile "war" on drugs. Beltran Leyva led one of the nation's six major cartels, and his influence and reputation for extraordinary violence had seen a $2.1 million [£1.31m] bounty placed on his head.

Witnesses told how troops went from door to door of the apartment complex, evacuating residents to a basement gym, before raiding the flat where Beltran Leyva was holed up. Three sailors were injured by hand grenades in the subsequent battle, during which an Associated Press reporter counted 10 major explosions.

It marked a suitably violent end to a career that began in the 1970s, when the 48-year-old Beltran Leyva cut his criminal teeth working for Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzmán, the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel. He broke away in 2003, and built up an organisation that controlled a swathe of the major north-western routes via which cocaine and heroin are smuggled from South America to the US.

His business model revolved around fear. Rivals would be found beheaded, with a sheet of paper saying "boss of bosses" attached to their mutilated corpse. His gang also enjoyed great success bribing politicians and security officials to tip them off about forthcoming police and military raids.

The state of Morelos, where Cuernavaca is located, has seen dozens of grisly murders in recent months, which some believe helped lead security forces to narrow their search for the drug baron. On Friday, sailors raided a party in the mountain town of Tepoztlan, where they killed three alleged Beltran Leyva Cartel members and detained 11.

President Calderó*has committed 49,000 troops to fighting a "war on drugs". Battles between police and rival cartels left 6,000 dead last year, and have so far killed almost 7,500 in 2009, mostly in US border cities like Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez.

Mexico's Government cites the levels of violence as evidence that it is winning, arguing that the wave of killings represent the death throes of a wounded beast. But most analysts aren't so sure. There remains a strong market for narcotics in the US, giving smugglers profit margins of up to 30,000 per cent. Thanks to relaxed gun laws in states such as Texas, there is also a vibrant cross-border arms trade to equip the country's six major cartels.

Beltran Leyva has four brothers, three of whom are still at large, so the future leadership of his gang is not in much doubt. Other groups also appear to be thriving: on Wednesday, the severed heads of six policemen were found near a church in the north of the country, in an attack blamed on the rival Gulf Cartel.