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Suspected US-born drug smuggler charged in Atlanta

ATLANTA -- A Texas-born man suspected of leading a Mexican drug cartel was charged Friday in federal court in Atlanta with distributing thousands of pounds of cocaine from Mexico to the eastern U.S. from 2004 to 2006.

Edgar Valdez Villarreal, who is known as "La Barbie," and five others were charged with conspiring to import and distribute cocaine and plotting to launder money. Authorities are offering a reward of up to $2 million for information leading to Villarreal's capture.

Authorities say Villarreal has become one of Mexico's most elusive drug kingpins, and the 36-year-old's mystique has grown partly because he was born in Laredo, Texas. Rodney Benson, the special agent in charge of Atlanta's Drug Enforcement Administration office, said the case "strikes directly at the core of Mexican drug cartel leadership."

Villarreal belonged to the notorious Sinaloa drug cartel in Mexico before one of its leaders split and established his own cartel, according to the indictment. Authorities say he is now battling for control and Mexican authorities have found decapitated and mangled bodies they believe are victims of the ongoing fight.

Prosecutors say they used a federal wiretap of a related case in Atlanta in January 2008 to identify Villarreal as the source of thousands of kilograms of cocaine that were imported into the U.S. from 2004 to 2006.

Witnesses said that some truckloads traveling from Laredo to Atlanta carried more than 650 pounds of cocaine. The workers shipped truckloads of money, often containing several million dollars in cash, back to Mexico in the tractor-trailer trucks, according to the court records.

Also charged in the indictment are: Carlos Montemayor, 37; Juan Montemayor, 45; Ruben Hernandez, 38; and Roberto Lopez, 31. Those four, along with Villarreal, are believed to be in Mexico. A fifth defendant, Jesus Ramos, has been arrested and arraigned in federal court in Atlanta and his charges are pending.

Along with Villarreal, authorities say Hernandez and Lopez are also U.S. citizens.

U.S. Attorney Sally Quillian Yates said the indictment is proof that federal prosecutors "are not content simply to arrest and prosecute those in our district who work on behalf of the Mexican cartels to bring cocaine into the United States."