Latin America & Caribbean

Flying in to tour the home of Mexico's fallen drug lord

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Media captionThe BBC's Katy Watson was taken inside one drug lord's cave hideout

The Mexican authorities are on a roll.

Last week they captured Servando "La Tuta" Gomez of the Knights Templar cartel. This week, it was Omar Trevino Morales's turn, a leader of one of Mexico's most violent criminal organisations, Los Zetas.

For a self-publicist like La Tuta who loved to bait the authorities, his was a fitting send-off.

Paraded in front of millions on live television, he was forced to bow out in front of the media he so loved.

Mexican authorities are basking in the positive light they find themselves in.

It was only a matter of minutes after La Tuta was flown to a high-security jail that I got invited on a tour of his former stomping ground.

And so a few days later, I found myself flying in a Black Hawk with Mexico's Federal Police.

Image caption La Tuta's former residence is so remote it can only safely be accessed by air

We were heading to Tierra Caliente.

Spanish for "hot land", it is a label given to the region because of its scorching temperatures.

But the region is also a hotspot for the illegal drug trade, too. Soaring over the forested mountains of western Michoacan state, we were visiting an area so inaccessible that helicopter was both the easiest and safest way of travelling.

Our first stop was a ranch used by the teacher-turned-drug cartel leader as a hiding place during police operations.

It was a simple one-storey building and just behind it there was a shed where he slept, complete with electricity and satellite television.

This would normally be a no-go area. Self-defence groups, or vigilantes, have also tried to drive out the drugs cartels themselves.

"It's one of the most organised, the biggest, strongest and violent criminal groups that in little over a year, the efforts of federal forces have managed to break up," says our tour guide for the day, Mexico's Federal Police Commissioner Enrique Galindo Ceballos.

His presence on the trip is a mark of just how much they want to tell their story.

"First [we targeted] its structure, and then arrested its leaders," he said.

"It has culminated in - although we still haven't finished all of our work - the most important part: arresting La Tuta."

But some experts cast doubt on its significance.

Image caption La Tuta turned this cave into a hideaway - and a prison for his enemies

"In symbolic terms, this was a very important capture. La Tuta was the face of impunity in Michoacan and bringing him to justice does send an important message," says independent security analyst Alejandro Hope.

"In practical terms, it is not that important. The Knights Templar were very far from their peak, they had been weakened over the past year and this just puts the last nail in their coffin."

No matter, the police are keen to show us their spoils.

We move on to the next hideout, a 10-minute helicopter ride away.

From the field we land in, we travel in a heavily armed convoy to a small river, every police truck carrying four policemen, complete with machine guns, pistols, body armour and helmets.

They constantly search the hillside for any threat.

We arrive at a small river with a huge rockface on the other side.

We are shown an entrance which gives way to a low passage, no more than a metre high at times, and we have to get on our hands and knees to crawl into a chamber.

This, the police tell us, was a cave La Tuta used to imprison his enemies - latterly he hid here himself too. When the authorities first came here, they found clothes, food as well as fine wine.

Image caption The area remains dangerous so police stood guard

With the arrest of two big criminal minds in less than a week, the Federal Police are feeling pretty pleased with themselves.

But La Tuta's capture was more than just a feather in their cap. In 2009, he was implicated in the murder of 12 Federal Police officers who had been investigating him.

Commissioner Galindo Ceballos describes the fact that he is behind bars as "mission accomplished".

But the mission in Michoacan, and elsewhere in Mexico, is far from over.

"It doesn't really matter if you capture the kingpin if you don't go after the political support network," says Dwight Dyer, a senior analyst at Control Risks.

"I think we have been here before with [former President Felipe] Calderon - it didn't really make much difference in the long or medium term.

Image caption Commissioner Galindo Ceballos of the Mexican police called La Tuta's arrest "Mission Accomplished"

"[President Enrique] Pena Nieto's strategy is essentially the same. They pick off the kingpins but for the local residents they don't see any difference."

And there is concern that now the cartel leaders are in prison, that leaves power vacuums in the organisations.

"The fragmentation of the large criminal groups is good and bad news at the same time," says Mr Hope.

"It's good because the emerging groups do not have the financial, political or military wherewithal to confront the state directly or to pose a threat to the stability of the state itself.

"However they have sufficient capacity to pose a threat to the lives, liberty and property of large proportions of the population and dealing with that threat requires local capabilities, state capabilities and those are really not there."

The police here in Michoacan act much like an occupying army, trying to keep the peace in an otherwise lawless land.

But sooner or later they will have to go. Despite the rhetoric, capturing big drug lords is just the start of the battle to improve security here.

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