LAT: Tijuana Cartel's Kingpin Arrested
- Tijuana Cartel's Kingpin Arrested
Narcotics: The arrest, and the recent death of another Arellano Felix leader, could spark a power struggle within and outside the cartel.
By CHRIS KRAUL
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
March 10 2002
MEXICO CITY -- Declaring one of the world's most powerful drug gangs "dismantled," Mexican authorities announced the capture of Tijuana drug mobster Benjamin Arellano Felix on Saturday while confirming the death of his brother Ramon in a police shootout last month.
The blows to the Tijuana cartel are significant because it is thought to control a quarter of all cocaine entering the United States from Mexico. Both brothers were on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's most-wanted list and carried $2-million bounties for their arrests.
Both also had eluded justice for a decade, protected by layers of corrupt police, judges and politicians in Mexico who had been co-opted by millions of dollars in bribes or intimidated by death threats that Ramon allegedly enjoyed carrying out.
The downfall of the Arellano Felix brothers will by no means bring the flow of drugs from Mexico to the United States to a halt. It could in fact raise the curtain on a bloody new struggle for power both within and outside the gang for the control of the lucrative Western drug-smuggling corridor.
Crusading Tijuana journalist Jesus Blancornelas said other members of the numerous Arellano Felix clan may step into the leadership breach. Brother Eduardo, a 48-year-old doctor, is the most likely to emerge as the new leader, said Blancornelas, who survived an Arellano Felix-led assassination attempt in 1997.
But the arrest of Benjamin, 49, the brains and chief executive of the cartel, and the death of Ramon, a ruthless enforcer responsible for hundreds of killings, drives a stake into a many-tentacled crime syndicate. Mexican and U.S. officials lauded the armed forces' arrest of Benjamin early Saturday as one of the most important blows yet struck against Mexican narco-traffickers.
"It is a great triumph for justice and for the Mexican army . . . and just one step in the work we have to do this year," President Vicente Fox said in a statement. Fox's government has arrested several mid-level narco-traffickers since taking office 15 months ago, but a "big fish" had eluded it until Saturday.
In the United States, the arrest of Benjamin, who guided the growth of the cartel, was seen by many as the clearest sign yet that the Fox administration is serious about the war on drugs.
In Washington, DEA chief Asa Hutchinson praised Fox in a telephone interview for "going after this very powerful and very violent organization. . . . No one thought it could be done. The full credit goes to the Mexican government."
Charles G. La Bella, a former U.S. attorney in San Diego who helped lead the government's antidrug efforts there during most of the 1990s, said the arrest of Benjamin, and of several other drug kingpins over the last year, represents the biggest burst of "anti-drug activity from Mexico in the last 30 years."
"But unless there is credible and consistent law enforcement commitment in Mexico to attack drug trafficking, this is just going to be a change of names" at the top, said La Bella, now an attorney in private practice in San Diego.
Mexican Atty. Gen. Rafael Macedo de la Concha and Defense Secretary Ricardo Vega held an early-morning news conference Saturday to announce the capture and to declare that evidence points convincingly to Ramon Arellano Felix's having died in a Feb. 10 police shootout in the port city of Mazatlan.
Mexican army units captured Benjamin Arellano Felix in a 1 a.m. raid in the wealthy Escondida neighborhood of Puebla, about 100 miles east of the capital. Also arrested was associate Manuel Martinez Gonzalez, alias "La Mojarra," or Big Fish. Arellano Felix's wife and two children were present during the capture but were not taken into custody.
The arrest capped what officials said was a four-month pursuit. Arellano Felix was later taken to an unspecified "secure location" and was scheduled to be jailed at the La Palma prison in suburban Mexico City.
One of two men killed in the February shootout in a Mazatlan public square was initially identified as Jorge Perez. But reports soon emerged that the victim was Ramon Arellano Felix, who had been using false identification papers during a trip to Mazatlan to settle scores with a rival trafficker, Ismael Zambada.
Macedo said authorities' confirmation of Ramon's death was based on fingerprints and on Benjamin's statement after his capture that his brother indeed had died. The government played a video for reporters that showed Benjamin responding "Yes" when asked whether his brother had been killed in the Mazatlan shootout.
Vega said a small altar with a photo of Ramon that was found in the Puebla house where Benjamin was arrested "makes one assume he died."
Still, DNA analysis of the victim's bloodstained shirt has not been completed. The body was cremated, and the blood, the morgue photos and the fingerprints on his 9-millimeter revolver are the only evidence authorities have to go on.
FBI officials on a special Arellano Felix task force based in San Diego said they would await the results of DNA tests before being certain about the victim's identity. Technicians are comparing a blood sample taken from the body at the scene of the shootout with a sample believed to be from Ramon's brother Francisco, now in jail.
William Gore, the special agent in charge of the FBI office in San Diego, said it would be "premature" to dismantle the U.S. task force formed to target the Arellano Felix cartel six years ago.
"Nobody believes that drugs will stop flowing into the United States from northern Baja. [The question is] who's going to take over that turf," Gore said. "Is it going to be a peaceful takeover or a violent takeover? That's what we're watching."
The Arellano Felix family, including six brothers and at least two sisters, is thought to have arrived in Tijuana from Sinaloa state in the mid-1980s, having been given the Baja California liquor and cigarette smuggling turf by an uncle, Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo. The family soon expanded its trade into marijuana and then cocaine, slowly consolidating a regional monopoly.
From the beginning, the Arellano Felixes were adept at melding into Tijuana's moneyed class and recruiting the wealthy sons of business and professional elites, dubbed "narco juniors," as hit men. They also recruited assassins from gangs in the Barrio Logan section of San Diego, who, among other hits, tried to kill Blancornelas, editor of the newspaper Zeta.
While bribing police and politicians at the rate of a rumored $1 million a day, they were also building relationships with legitimate businesses that laundered drug cash. A dozen such Baja businesses were recently named by the U.S. government as off limits to U.S. trade.
The Arellano Felixes bought political influence by financing candidates' electoral campaigns, said Jose Luis Perez Canchola, former Baja California state prosecutor in charge of human rights and now an attorney with the Mexico City district attorney's office.
"What set the Arellanos apart was their entrepreneurial vision," said Victor Alfaro Clark, director of the Tijuana-based Binational Commission on Human Rights and a visiting professor at San Diego State University.
The family's vicious modus operandi--summed up as "bribes or bullets"--co-opted the highest levels of Mexican police and government. Many who didn't accept bribes were killed in brutal fashion.
"You either have to take money from them or die," DEA Special Agent Donald Thornhill said in San Diego.
Among the hundreds of Arellano Felix victims were federal prosecutors and local police officials. Although each of the three or four main Mexican drug cartels was violent in its way, the Arellano Felixes were especially brutal, often sadistic killers.
They burst into notoriety in May 1993 when gunmen allegedly led by Ramon and including Barrio Logan thugs killed Mexican Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo during what is believed to have been a botched attempt at assassinating a rival drug boss.
That Ramon Arellano Felix would have been present at assassinations, when he could have easily sent squads of hit men, doesn't surprise those familiar with his career.
"He was crazy and bloodthirsty," Thornhill said.
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