‘’For years, we have lived under the reign of the machine gun,’’ Norma Corona Sapién, director of the Human Rights Commission of Sinaloa, told the New York Times in an April 15, 1989 article. “The narcos thought they had protection and could act with impunity, so that’s what they did, kidnapping and raping young girls, getting into drunken fights on the street, killing each other and generally acting as if they owned the city.’’
The Godfather’s reign over Sinaloa was at its strongest from 1981 to 1986, during the administration of Antonio Toledo. American officials alleged that the drug lord had spent time as the governor’s house guest, an accusation that Toledo denied, despite extant photos of the two posing together at a wedding party. The governor also said that he was “unaware of any outstanding arrest warrants’’ against Félix, though no fewer than six warrants had been in effect since 1981.
“When the new administration took over in 1987, we found some police commanders to be [narco-traffickers],’’ Eduardo Aispuro, a spokesman for the State Judicial Police, said in the aforementioned New York Times story.”It was the most incredible and intolerable thing to find the police body to be completely infiltrated by narcos.’’
Félix continued to operate as one of Mexico’s leading drug czars from jail, where he conducted business via mobile phone from his prison apartment above the warden’s office, the space adorned with a large framed photograph of the drug lord with Pope John Paul II.
“It’s not clear why Angel Félix finally went down,” says University of San Diego professor and director of the Trans-Border Institute David Shirk in a phone interview. “I think someone had to betray his trust, and it looks from the fact pattern after his arrest that it may have been Palma.”
The two had had a falling out shortly after Félix’s arrest. From jail, Félix hired a Venezuelan man to seduce Palma’s wife, take her to Venezuela, decapitate her, and send her head back to Palma in Mexico. Palma’s two children were also killed.
In 1992, Félix was transferred to a maximum-security facility, La Palma, 50 miles west of Mexico City. At that point, Félix’s trafficking routes were divided among four main factions: the Gulf, Sinaloa, Juárez, and Tijuana cartels.
“We see a splintering from the first generation, which was relatively homogenous, to a second generation, where a new distribution map is drawn,” says Shirk. “Whether that was a deliberate act by Félix or whether those groups got together to split up territory is something that is debated by drug-trafficking experts.”
The Sinaloa cartel was headed by former lieutenants Héctor “El Güero” Palma, Adrián Gómez, and Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who controlled the states of Sinaloa, Durango, Chihuahua, Sonora, Nuevo León, and Michoacán. The Tijuana-Mexicali corridor was originally given to Javier Caro, who soon fled the country and was arrested in Canada. The territory was quickly usurped by Jesús “El Chuy” Labra and five of Félix’s nephews, the Arellano Félix brothers.
Benjamín and Ramón Arellano had proven themselves adept criminals, smuggling clothing and consumer electronics across the border for many years. When they inherited their uncle’s drug-trafficking business, they already had their roles worked out. Labra acted as mentor to the Arellano brothers and effectively ran the group, which specialized in selling protection to business and political figures. Benjamín was the brains of the operation, governing the strategic aspects of the business. Ramón, 11 years younger, was the enforcer — a role that he is said to have taken joy in. The Arellano Félix organization’s savage reputation is largely credited to Ramón’s infamous sadistic flair.
“Wherever there is danger, that’s where you’ll find Ramón,” a former narco-junior, Alejandro Hodoyán, told Mexican narcotics agents in 1996 in an interview later run by the Mexican magazine Proceso. “In 1989 or ’90, we were at a Tijuana corner without anything to do and he told us, ‘Let’s go kill someone. Who has a score to settle?’ Cars would pass and he’d ask us who we knew. The person we pointed out would appear dead within a week.”
Hodoyán was arrested in Tijuana and allegedly tortured for months by a military unit headed by General Gutiérrez for information about the Arellano Félix organization. Gutiérrez was later discovered to be on the payroll of the rival Sinaloa cartel.
“In my 17 years in this job, I’ve never seen a more violent group,” said DEA officer Don Thornhill in a March 15, 2002 U.K. Guardian article. “They would kill people who didn’t cooperate. They would kill people who didn’t pay a fee or a toll [for moving drugs through their territory]. They would kill people who were not necessarily disloyal to them. They killed them to set an example.”
Of the 11 children of Francisco Arellano and Alicia Félix (seven brothers and four sisters), five are known to have played a major role in the Arellano Félix organization. Along with Benjamín and Ramón were Eduardo, Javier, and the oldest Arellano brother, Francisco, who forged important political and police alliances out of his Mazatlán discotheque, Frankie O’s. Little is known about the two remaining Arellano brothers, Carlos and Luis, who, though believed to be involved with logistics and laundering for the family cartel, never made it onto U.S. authorities’ wanted lists.
Other key members of the early Tijuana cartel were Ismael “El Mayel” Higuera (chief operations officer, money launderer, and boss in Ensenada, who carried a special knife for his signature mutilations), his younger brother Gilberto (overseer of the Mexicali side of operations), and Arturo “El Kitty” Páez (chief recruiter for violent narco-juniors from middle-class Tijuana and San Diego families). These narco-juniors were responsible for surveillance, trafficking product, and settling accounts with traffickers who used the Mexicali-Tijuana corridor without paying the transit tax.
“Some of those juniors went to school here in the United States, as the cross-border influence,” said Heidi Landgraff, a group supervisor for a San Diego DEA unit, in a PBS interview. “Some spoke English well. They dressed very nicely. They are not tattooed individuals like someone in a gang. So they could be sitting next to you in a restaurant, and you wouldn’t know that.”