Man or Myth? American Drug Lord 'La Barbie' Fascinates and Terrorizes

"La Barbie" terrorizes border towns, resulting in hundreds of deaths.

May 19, 2010, 11:18 AM

May 19, 2010— -- For some along the Texas-Mexico border, Edgar Valdez-Villareal is an American success story.

Valdez-Villareal is a wealthy businessman from Laredo, Texas, who has hit the big time, raking in millions of dollars. Now living the good life in Mexico, he drives fancy cars and has been nicknamed "La Barbie," thanks to his good looks.

Beautiful women want to be with him, and back in Texas, kids say they want to be like him.

For more on La Barbie, watch 'World News with Diane Sawyer' tonight on ABC.

"Guys like money," said one male high school student who had heard stories about Valdez-Villareal. "They get fame, they get girls, they get houses. They get everything they want."

But on both sides of the border, police are watching La Barbie, too. They say they he is involved in drug smuggling, money laundering and murder.

Experts in narco terrorism told ABC News that the 36-year-old modern day mobster is on the verge of becoming a top boss within a Mexican drug cartel, the first American ever to do so.

"La Barbie is a fascinating character that has reached the proportions of myth," said Fred Burton, vice president of intelligence for Stratfor Global Intelligence, who has followed Valdez-Villareal's rise to power. Burton is a former counterterrorism agent with the U.S. State Department.

"He's a kid you would not expect, coming from a nice family, upper-middle class, living the American dream," Burton said. "And the next thing you know, he's swallowed up in this narco business and has become highly successful."

So how did Valdez-Villareal go from being a high school football standout in Texas to one of the most wanted narco bosses in Mexico? Authorities say it all began by selling pot on the streets of Laredo.

"We were going to buy 300 pounds of marijuana. We met up with him, we talked, we negotiated," recalled Webb County Sheriff Martin Cuellar.

When the officers went to complete the deal, Valdez-Villareal never showed up.

"You know, I guess he smelled something," said Cuellar.

'La Barbie' Moves Across Border, Joining with Mexican Cartels

Soon, Valdez-Villareal took his drug business across the border, where his charisma, personality and fluency in English and Spanish put him in the good graces of the drug cartel leaders.

"He knows both sides," said a Texas homicide detective who asked ABC News to keep his identity a secret. "He knows our way of thinking, our ways of operating, so he uses that to his advantage. It helps him tremendously."

The detective says that La Barbie quickly went from pot dealer to cartel hit man.

"That's how he started building a name for himself," the detective said, claiming that Valdez-Villareal had personally killed or ordered the deaths of hundreds of people.

La Barbie became the enforcer for a major drug cartel, waging war against another cartel, officials say. In 2005 and 2006, the border city of Nuevo Laredo was their battlefield, where there were nearly 200 murders a year.

"This is like the mafia wars of the '50s and '60s playing out in New York City as to which crime family is going to take control," said the detective.

So brazen is Valdez-Villareal, authorities said, that he sent a message to the Mexican government printed in a local newspaper.

Filmmaker Rusty Fleming, who researched Valdez for his film 'Drug Wars,' summarized the message, saying, "You're never going to eradicate the supply of dope any more than you are going to eradicate the demand ... somebody's going to do it and I'm the lesser of all evils. We don't kill women and children. [...] If you're going to have somebody smuggling drugs through our country to the U.S. and the world, it should be me."

Where is Edgar Valdez-Villareal now? Some say he's on the beach in Acapulco, hiding out in plain sight.

"He's probably had some plastic surgery," speculated Fleming. "Many of your high level drug lords, especially those wanted in the U.S., do some kind of facial reconstruction or something to alter their looks."

On the American side of the border, ABC News tracked down Valdez-Villareal's mother, who described him as a good man, but admitted she hasn't heard from her son "in a very long time."

"There is never a good outcome with a kid like this," said the detective, who asked to remain anonymous. "He's either going to be killed or captured by the Mexican military or federal police inside of Mexico, or he is going to die in a hail of bullets by a cartel rival."

That's the tragic, high price of crime in the Mexican drug wars.