The True Story Of Drug Kingpin Arturo Beltrán Leyva And His Reign Of Terror In Mexico

Published May 2, 2023
Updated May 3, 2023

For decades, Arturo Beltrán Leyva rose to power under the guidance of more notorious traffickers. But by the early 2000s, he was sick of working for his bosses — and set out to become a fearsome boss himself.

Arturo Beltrán Leyva may be lesser known than other Mexican drug kingpins, but he was a central figure in some of the country’s bloodiest drug turf wars. Though he had once been aligned with the notorious Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and the Sinaloa Cartel, Beltrán Leyva had split from the organization by 2008 — and created his own group.

Declaring himself “El Jefe de Jefes” (“The Boss of Bosses”), Beltrán Leyva violently attacked many of his former allies. He also went after high-ranking authority figures and government officials in Mexico, earning himself a particularly fearsome reputation even among his fellow drug lords.

But his reign of terror would not last forever. By December 2009, Beltrán Leyva had died just as brutally as he lived — in a hail of bullets shot by a team of Mexican special forces that tracked him down in Cuernavaca.

The Early Crimes Of Arturo Beltrán Leyva

Arturo Beltran Leyva

U.S. Department of StateA rare, undated image of drug trafficker Arturo Beltrán Leyva.

Born on September 27, 1961, Arturo Beltrán Leyva was raised in Badiraguato, a municipality in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. Growing up in an area known for its many drug traffickers, Beltrán Leyva was the oldest of five brothers — so he assumed a leadership role in his family’s drug-smuggling gang.

According to The Guardian, Beltrán Leyva’s gang grew in power around the mid-1980s. Most of the major Colombian cartels were starting to fall apart during that time, but cocaine was still in high demand, so this offered an opportunity for many Mexican drug lords who were hoping to get rich.

But for the next couple of decades, Beltrán Leyva remained largely a secondary character in the drug-trafficking world. He found himself mostly answering to kingpins who were more powerful and notorious than him, including Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, the “godfather” of the Guadalajara Cartel, and Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the head of the Juárez Cartel.

At some point, Beltrán Leyva and his brothers became hired guns and later business associates for perhaps the most infamous Mexican drug lord of all: Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. Aligned with the Sinaloa Cartel, Beltrán Leyva helped make the organization become one of the most powerful of its kind.

And while El Chapo was locked up in a maximum-security prison in Jalisco, Mexico, Beltrán Leyva helped ensure that his incarceration would be as luxurious as possible until El Chapo escaped from the facility in 2001.

However, Beltrán Leyva would eventually turn on his former boss.

The Rapid Rise Of The Beltrán Leyva Cartel

Beltran Leyva Cartel Founder

AFP via Getty ImagesArturo Beltrán Leyva was known by a variety of aliases, including “White Boots,” “The Ghost,” and sometimes just “Death.”

By the early 2000s, Arturo Beltrán Leyva was reportedly tired of answering to more powerful drug traffickers. He wanted to be a boss himself — and in 2008, he found the perfect opportunity to strike it out on his own.

Early that year, one of Beltrán Leyva’s brothers, Alfredo Beltrán Leyva, was arrested. Arturo Beltrán Leyva strongly believed that El Chapo had been the one to turn him in, and made no effort to keep his suspicions a secret.

According to The New Yorker, one of El Chapo’s sons was found fatally shot soon afterward. It was widely believed that Arturo Beltrán Leyva had been the one responsible for the murder, as revenge for the arrest of his brother.

This marked the official split between Arturo Beltrán Leyva and El Chapo, as Beltrán Leyva joined forces with his family members and other loyal allies in a series of bloody drug turf wars against the Sinaloa Cartel. Considering the international notoriety of El Chapo, some may have assumed that Beltrán Leyva would be eliminated right away. But he had several other Sinaloa deserters on his side, along with his former drug-trafficking rivals, Los Zetas.

Soon, authorities in Mexico and the United States began to take note of the Beltrán Leyva Cartel as a formidable organization in its own right. According to the U.S. Department of State, the cartel not only became infamous for trafficking drugs like cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine, but also for kidnapping, torturing, and murdering enemies of the organization — and anyone connected to the group’s rivals, including women and children.

And since Arturo Beltrán Leyva was the clear leader of the cartel, he soon gained a particularly bloodthirsty reputation, especially when he was linked to a series of vicious murders, including that of a federal police officer, a key protected witness in a drug-trafficking case, and numerous cartel rivals.

In fact, Beltrán Leyva was so brutal that he was eventually named the third most wanted man in all of Mexico, with a $1.5 million reward offered to anyone who had information that led to his successful capture.

It can be assumed that Beltrán Leyva was enjoying his newfound power, as he called himself “El Jefe de Jefes” (“The Boss of Bosses”) — and left that message near the bodies of his enemies. But more power came with more attention, and it wouldn’t be long before the authorities tracked him down.

The Downfall Of A Brutal Kingpin

Mexican Special Forces In 2009

LUIS ACOSTA/AFP via Getty ImagesMembers of the Mexican Navy stand near the Cuernavaca apartment where Arturo Beltrán Leyva was shot dead in 2009.

For much of 2009, authorities from Mexico and the United States worked hard to find Arturo Beltrán Leyva. On December 11th of that year, a special forces cordon located him at a Christmas party in the town of Tepoztlán. Though multiple people at the party were arrested — including Latin Grammy winner Ramon Ayala — Beltrán Leyva himself escaped the raid.

But just days later, United States intelligence agencies found Beltrán Leyva yet again, this time hiding out at a luxury apartment building in the city of Cuernavaca. According to PBS, the U.S. agencies quickly notified Mexican authorities, who discreetly evacuated the other residents in the apartment building before launching a new operation against the drug trafficker.

And on December 16th, Beltrán Leyva was greeted by 200 Mexican Marines, a Navy helicopter, and two small Army tanks. In an ensuing shootout that lasted about four hours, Beltrán Leyva was shot dead by members of the Mexican Navy’s Special Forces and left riddled with multiple bullet wounds. Four of Beltrán Leyva’s bodyguards were also killed during the operation.

In the aftermath of the shootout, Beltrán Leyva’s death was hailed as a much-needed victory for then-President Felipe Calderón, who had long struggled to make progress in his administration’s war on drugs in Mexico. But clearly, Beltrán Leyva was far from the only underworld figure who’d unleashed terror upon countless people throughout the country.

Some members of Beltrán Leyva’s organization — including his surviving brothers — attempted to restore it to power, but the cartel soon began to crumble with the loss of its original leader. And by the late 2010s, most key members of the group had either been killed or captured by police.

In the end, Arturo Beltrán Leyva eventually got the level of power and influence that he wanted, but it eventually led to his own demise.

And while his death may have been a small comfort to the loved ones of the people he killed, it was ultimately just a short chapter in a far longer story about the violence of drug cartels that persists in Mexico to this day.

After learning about Arturo Beltrán Leyva, read more about his infamous friend-turned-foe, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. Then, take a look at the story of the notorious Colombian “King of Cocaine,” Pablo Escobar.

Neil Patmore
A true crime specialist, Neil Patmore served as a police officer in the UK for nine years, and a private investigator for three years before becoming a writer.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.
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Patmore, Neil. "The True Story Of Drug Kingpin Arturo Beltrán Leyva And His Reign Of Terror In Mexico.", May 2, 2023, Accessed June 24, 2024.