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Government Winning Mexico Drug War, Despite Violence

In Mexico's drug war, Tijuana tells the story of a government that says it's winning, even as the battle gets bloodier.

The arrest aboard a yacht in August 2006 of Javier Arellano Felix, the boss of the Tijuana-based Arellano Felix cartel, sparked a savage war of succession — one that President Felipe Calderon moved to exploit when he took office four months later and declared war on the whole drug business in Mexico.

Tijuana's case has shown how much time, effort and blood it can take to subdue even one cartel. Eighteen months after Arellano Felix's arrest, the border city's drug lords were still fighting the army and each other to control lucrative drug routes.

Now, after daytime shootouts and beheadings — 443 murders in the last three months of 2008 alone — Tijuana is quieter. Skeptics say the lull could be only a short-term truce among traffickers. But a top Mexican army commander says the powerful gang's warring factions are spent.

"They wore each other down," Gen. Alfonso Duarte Mugica told The Associated Press. "They couldn't keep going at that pace."

To break down the country's other big cartels, Calderon is using the same strategy that put the Arellano Felix gang on the ropes. Drug violence throughout Mexico has claimed more than 10,700 lives since December 2006 — a sign, says Attorney General Eduardo Medina-Mora, that the government offensive is dividing and weakening drug gangs as they battle for a tightening market.

Calderon's war may never choke off the drug flow permanently. But the goal, he told the AP in late February, is to beat back the cartels by the end of his term in 2012 to a point where the army and federal police can withdraw and leave the rest to normal policing.

The fate of the Arellano Felix gang also shows that the government crackdown is changing drug trafficking in Mexico from a discreet, disciplined business to a brazen public brawl among smaller, less sophisticated criminals — leading to the bloody chaos plaguing the country.

"At least in the first two years, it hasn't led to smaller and more manageable (cartels), it's just led to smaller and more violent," said David Shirk, director of the University of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute.

When the Arellanos dominated Tijuana — as fictionally portrayed in the Hollywood movie "Traffic" — there was a sense of order in the ranks. Cartel members were recruited from wealthy families and blended easily with Tijuana's elite.

Now the four brothers who ruled it are dead or in jail, and the gang is run by Fernando Sanchez Arellano, a nephew in his 30s known as "the Engineer." He is at war with Teodoro Garcia Simental, a longtime cartel lieutenant of roughly the same age who broke away a year ago in a street shootout that killed 14 gang members.

Other long-established gangs — from the Sinaloa cartel based in the northwestern Mexican state of the same name, to the Gulf cartel based near the Gulf of Mexico — are adding to the mayhem by openly battling for the Tijuana gang's once-secure cocaine and marijuana turf.

The Engineer's rival, known as "El Teo," is now allied with the Sinaloa cartel, according to an army document dated February.

El Teo and the Engineer are hardly the leaders of the 1990s, when Mexican cartels took over from Colombians as U.S. drug enforcement in the Caribbean and south Florida pushed drug routes to the U.S.-Mexico border.

In those days Ramon Arellano Felix was the enforcer who rode Harley-Davidson motorcycles and killed people for kicks. Benjamin Arellano Felix was the reserved businessman who dressed conservatively and, according to a 2003 federal indictment in San Diego, "had the ultimate decision-making authority."

The Arellanos killed anyone who stepped on their California-Mexico border turf, aided by corrupt Mexican officials. Their "chief enforcer" in the city of Mexicali, according to a U.S. indictment, was Armando Martinez Duarte, a former federal police official.

Yet the brothers tried to avoid violence in public, typically dissolving bodies in drums of chemicals or burning them in the desert, said John Kirby, a former U.S. prosecutor who co-wrote the 2003 indictment.

"Benjamin wanted things to be quiet," Kirby said. "He didn't want a bunch of bodies being thrown in the street."

Their business attracted some of Tijuana's most prominent families.

Alejandro and Alfredo Hoyodan, San Diego-born sons of a Tijuana electrical contractor, joined Ramon at the best nightclubs and street parties. Their mother, Cristina Palacios, recalled that Ramon was wearing a mink coat and shorts the first time she saw him in 1987.

Ramon always paid for the beer, and soon the sons joined his operation.

Alejandro was 35 when he went missing in 1997. Alfredo, 36, is in a Mexican prison.

Palacios paused when asked what drew her sons to Ramon. "I think it was the adrenaline," she said.

But public acceptance of the Arellanos evaporated in 1993, when Ramon and a crew seeking to assassinate a rival killed Roman Catholic Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo in the Guadalajara airport — a case of mistaken identity.

Meanwhile, Mexican and U.S. drug enforcement officials chipped away at the leadership. In 2002, Mexican authorities killed Ramon in a shootout in Mazatlan and, a month later, captured Benjamin, who remains in a Mexican prison.

After Benjamin's arrest, a key lieutenant already in custody opened up to U.S. authorities, according to David Herrod, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent who pursued the brothers for nearly 20 years.

Arturo "Kitty" Paez, who in 2001 became the first Mexican drug trafficker to be extradited to the U.S. under a landmark Mexican Supreme Court ruling, gave authorities "the break we needed" to build a case against Benjamin and other top leaders, Herrod said in a public lecture last year.

He also helped lead them to the new boss, Javier, the youngest of the 11 Arellano Felix children. U.S. authorities intercepted radio communications of at least 1,500 kidnappings under Javier's reign, with most of the victims' bodies dissolved in acid, Herrod said. U.S. authorities say Javier had a drug-smuggling tunnel dug under the border that was longer than seven football fields.

To capture Javier, the DEA planted a transponder under a yacht he used while it was at a Southern California dealership, said David Bartick, his attorney.

The DEA persuaded the Coast Guard to watch the yacht for six weeks, Herrod said. The American cutter had finished its duty and was two hours up the coast when word arrived that Javier had left Mexican waters. By the time the cutter returned, its target was barely a mile beyond the 12-mile limit, making it legal to intercept the vessel. Javier pleaded guilty to drug charges in San Diego and was sentenced to life in federal prison.

The cartel baton passed to the Engineer, about whom little is known. Only in January did the DEA release its first photos of the Engineer and El Teo.

The two rivals battled in a shootout that began on a major Tijuana boulevard early one Saturday morning. The army says the Engineer called a meeting to order El Teo to stop kidnappings and executions; El Teo didn't show.

The split resulted from "a lack of leadership," said Duarte Mugica, who commands more than 2,000 troops in Tijuana. "It's very likely that the Engineer didn't command respect or legitimacy."

In the ensuing war, 12 corpses were dumped near a school in September, most either without heads or without tongues. Nine more headless bodies were found in an empty lot in December. The heads of three police officers were found with their credentials stuffed in their mouths.

Duarte Mugica says the warring factions are increasingly recruiting minors because they can't find experienced criminals. Some are paid only $400 a month to guard homes where kidnap victims are held.

The Arellano Felix cartel continues to suffer setbacks. Eduardo Arellano Felix, the last of the founding brothers, was captured in October. Other allegedly key operatives were arrested last year — Saul Montes de Oca as he prepared for the Baja 250 off-road race, and Gustavo Rivera in the beach resort of San Jose del Cabo.

El Teo's camp is also in trouble; a suspected hit man and former Rosarito police officer, Angel Jacome Gamboa, was among 60 people detained in a Tijuana ballroom in March.

In January, the army raided a three-day party and captured Santiago Meza Lopez, who confessed to dissolving 300 bodies in vats of liquid over the previous year under El Teo's orders. Duarte Mugica said El Teo and two top deputies escaped to the beach five minutes before troops arrived.

The general says the Arellano Felix cartel is divided and weakened — but stops short of saying it is finished.

"It is all part of our strategy to create division," he said, "to create mistrust among themselves."