SAN DIEGO – Suspected drug kingpin Francisco Javier Arellano Felix pleaded not guilty to racketeering and conspiracy charges after arriving on U.S. soil in a Coast Guard boat and being whisked to a downtown jail under heavy security.
Arellano Felix did not speak during the brief hearing Thursday. His court-appointed attorney, Leila Morgan, pleaded not guilty on his behalf to racketeering, racketeering conspiracy, conspiracy to import and distribute controlled substances, and money laundering.
Arellano Felix, 36, had been captured on a sport boat in international waters Monday along with seven other men, including Arturo Villarreal Heredia, who U.S. authorities said was probably his second-in-command.
"There is no discernible leader left to fill the void" in the Tijuana-based Arellano Felix cartel, said John Fernandes, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration's San Diego office. "I don't consider this organization disrupted. I consider this organization defunct."
The men arrived on a U.S. Coast Guard boat at the agency's harborside facility. The group was escorted to a waiting motorcade of police vehicles and unmarked Chevy Suburbans as snipers watched from atop a nearby hangar.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Leo S. Papas scheduled a bail hearing Monday for Arellano Felix. After the defendant left the courtroom, the seven others entered and were ordered held as material witnesses.
Arellano Felix's son was among three children ages 5 to 11 who also were on the 43-foot yacht, said Carol Lam, the U.S. attorney in San Diego. One was apparently a nephew, and the third child's identity was unclear.
The children were brought to the United States and will be returned to Mexico, Fernandes said at a news conference.
Coast Guard Rear Adm. Jody Breckinridge said that Mexican authorities did not participate in the arrest and that Arellano Felix showed little resistance.
In Mexico, Attorney General Daniel Cabeza de Vaca said Thursday that the arrest "totally devastated" the cartel. Some experts, however said it would not mean much to the organization or to the larger fight against drug trafficking in Mexico.
Cabeza de Vaca also said Mexico would seek Arellano Felix's extradition to Mexico, but perhaps not until he had been tried and sentenced for crimes in the United States.
Arellano Felix was among 11 people charged in 2003 with 10 counts of conspiracy and racketeering. He is suspected of conspiring to assassinate Roman Catholic Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo in 1993 at the airport in Guadalajara, U.S. officials said.
The indictment accuses Arellano Felix, 36, and others of moving tons of Colombian cocaine and Mexican marijuana to the United States along the California-Mexico border. The Arellano Felix gang is believed to be responsible for large border drug tunnels discovered last January.
They are also accused of kidnapping, torturing and killing rivals and bribing Mexican officials. The indictment links Arellano Felix to a 1996 killing in Coronado, California, near San Diego, and a 1992 shootout at a disco in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
The Arellano Felix gang emerged as a drug powerhouse in the 1980s in Tijuana, Mexico, across the border from San Diego, but its influence has waned lately. It recently ceded control of Mexicali, an important drug corridor about 120 miles east of Tijuana, said John Kirby, a former federal prosecutor in San Diego who worked on the 2003 indictment.
Kirby said Arellano Felix led the Tijuana clan almost by default in 2002 when the gang lost two of his older brothers: Benjamin, who was jailed, and Ramon, who was killed.
Benjamin Arellano Felix has continued to issue orders from jail in Mexico, but his younger brother was the top lieutenant in the field, said Kirby.
The State Department had offered $5 million rewards for the capture of Francisco Javier or his brother Eduardo. Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty said there was no indication whether anyone would receive the award for Francisco Javier's capture.
Federal drug agents began preparing for the latest operation 14 months ago after learning that Arellano Felix was planning a fishing trip. The agents enlisted the Coast Guard's help and were helped throughout by Mexican law enforcement officers.
Federal authorities learned of the fishing trip four months ago, said DEA spokesman Dan Simmons.
U.S. authorities identified others arrested on the boat as Marco Villanueva Fernandez, Edgar Omar Osorio, Luis Raul Jiminez Toledo, Francisco Javier Mesa Castro, Ernesto Gonzales Fimbles and Jose Luis Betancourt Espinoza.