MEXICO CITY – The capture of suspected drug lord Francisco Javier Arellano Felix is unlikely to deal a death blow to the Tijuana cartel that bears his family name, partly because his reputation had little to do with his leadership abilities, experts said.
Although U.S. authorities announced Wednesday that they had "taken the head off the snake" with the arrest of Arellano Felix aboard a boat off Mexico's Pacific coast on Monday, the gang has effectively lost much of its influence over the years.
"For the war against drugs, this means nothing, since Francisco Javier was not an important part of the organization," said Jesus Blancornelas, a Tijuana journalist who has chronicled the city's drug trade for decades and was wounded in a 1997 assassination attempt linked to the cartel.
"Francisco Javier was a sort of playboy," Blancornelas said. "He likes to spend money and enjoy his fame. He drives around in luxury cars."
Even the nickname of the 36-year-old suspect suggested his secondary status: "El Tigrillo," or "The Little Tiger."
Arellano Felix is more of a thug than a leader, others said.
"In the underworld, he was known as the enforcer. He was the violent hand, the one in charge of executions," said Victor Clark Alfaro, director of the Binational Center for Human Rights in Tijuana.
At its bloody peak in the 1990s, the gang was led by brothers Ramon and Benjamin Arellano Felix. But Ramon died in a shootout in 2002, and Benjamin was arrested the same year.
The Tijuana gang then began to weaken and is believed to have joined a loose alliance with Mexico's Gulf Cartel to protect their turf against an onslaught by a rival bloc — sometimes known as "the federation" — led by Mexico's most-wanted drug lord, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.
Although Gulf Cartel leader Osiel Cardenas was arrested in 2003, Guzman had escaped from prison two years before, leaving President Vicente Fox with a mixed record in collaring major drug lords.
"This is the first time in a few years that they have arrested one among the more famous (drug traffickers), but he isn't really a big-time trafficker," Blancornelas said.
Experts say the real brains behind the cartel's operations may be a surprise: one of the men's four sisters, Enedina Arellano Felix, or possibly a fourth brother — among seven — Francisco Eduardo.
Francisco Eduardo is still at large in Mexico, but U.S. officials say he is not considered "capable of leading the organization at this time."
The Arellano Felix cartel is believed to be responsible for massive drug tunnels discovered in January, the longest of which stretched 2,400 feet from a warehouse near the Tijuana airport to a warehouse in San Diego's Otay Mesa industrial district. More than 2 tons of marijuana was found in the tunnel.
Still, Mexican analysts doubted the significance of Arellano Felix's arrest.
"It's not like the U.S. government says, that it has 'taken the head off the snake,'" said Jorge Fernandez Menendez, a writer for the newspaper Excelsior. "This is unlikely to dramatically change the distribution of drugs in the United States."
Yet the impervious wall that surrounded the cartel in the 1990s appears to have been broken.
Jerry Speziale, a former investigator for a federal narcotics task force who spent much of the 1990s undercover in Central and South America, said the Arellano Felix cartel was notoriously difficult to penetrate.
Speziale, now sheriff of Passaic County, N.J., recalled a meeting in the early 1990s in which DEA agents presented detailed charts of the cartels they were investigating.
"Everyone has nice charts with lots of information," Speziale said. "The guy who was doing the Arellano Felix organization opens up a blank piece of paper. He said, 'I'm working on the Arellano organization, but this is what I know about them.'"
The cartel's success came from the loyalty of its members and the ability to find a niche in the international drug market, Speziale said.
Colombian drug cartels would pay shipping charges to the Arellano Felix cartel as well as pass along 50 percent of their load. In exchange, the Mexican cartel would set up and maintain airstrips to allow transportation of the wholesale drugs into Mexico, arrange for the drugs to cross into the lucrative U.S. marketplace and establish a distribution network there, Speziale said.