The Tijuana cartel as we know it today has its roots in the Mexican states of Sinaloa on the southeast side of the Gulf of California and Jalisco in central Mexico. A former Mexican Judicial Federal Police officer and bodyguard to Sinaloan governor Leopoldo Sánchez, Miguel Félix was among the first Mexican drug lords to make connections with Colombian cartels in the mid-’70s thanks to his Honduran liaison Juan Matta. The U.S. government’s Operation Hat Tricks succeeded in cutting off Colombia’s cocaine supply route to south Florida in the mid-1980s, resulting in the fortification of relationships between Colombia’s Medellin and Cali cartels and Mexican trafficking organizations.
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.
Also known as El Padrino, or “The Godfather,” Félix learned the ins of the drug trade from Pedro Avilés, who in the early 1970s dominated the territory from Chihuahua to Sinaloa. According to the DEA, Félix became the number-one cocaine trafficker in Mexico starting in the mid-’70s, thanks in part to the political and business connections facilitated by ex-Governor Sánchez. In 1976, an arrest order was issued for Félix in Tijuana for heroin and cocaine trafficking, but nothing further was done. According to the DEA, Félix was protected by an important narcotics official.
After Avilés was shot by federal police in September 1978, Félix formed the Guadalajara cartel with seasoned capos Rafael “El Número Uno” Caro and Ernesto “Don Neto” Fonseca. All three had learned the drug business in Sinaloa, a state with a history of opium and marijuana production dating back to the 1920s. They relocated to Guadalajara in order to elude 10,000 Mexican soldiers roaming the hills and multiple American aircraft that, under the auspices of Operation Condor, sprayed the crop-destroying herbicide paraquat in the mountains of Sinaloa, Durango, and Chihuahua.
At the peak of their operation in the early to mid-’80s, the Guadalajara cartel was believed by American officials to have orchestrated the smuggling of up to two tons of cocaine a month into the United States to feed what historian Héctor Aguilar termed “the insatiable North American nose.” Félix laundered his immense income, upwards of $30 million a month, in part by investing in tourism projects in Hermosillo and Puerto Vallarta.
The centralized political structure at the time, under the singular rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), invited the opportunity for corruption of high-level government officials. Drug-trafficking organizations fostered strong ties in particular with the Federal Security Directorate, which went largely unchecked in its domestic security operations until it was dismantled in 1985.
In November 1984, the Mexican Federal Police raided Caro’s property in El Búfalo, Chihuahua, and destroyed over 10,000 tons of marijuana, valued at nearly $2 billion. U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency Special Agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena headed the investigation, called Operation Godfather, a victory that he would pay for with his life a few months later. Thirty-seven-year-old Camarena, a Calexico, California native, and his pilot Alfredo Zavala were kidnapped by five armed men in broad daylight on the streets of Guadalajara on February 7, 1985, subsequently tortured for information about DEA operations, and then bludgeoned to death and buried in shallow graves 70 miles south of the city.
The incident effectively elevated narcotics smuggling from a law-enforcement issue to a matter of national security and spurred Calexico residents to erect signs on the highway reading, “Warning: Not Safe To Travel To Guadalajara, Mexico.” Parent-teacher organization members in California, Illinois, and Virginia wore red ribbons as a symbol of intolerance toward drug use, and in 1988 Congress announced the first National Red Ribbon Week, chaired by Nancy Reagan.
“Kiki’s killing symbolized corruption at its worst in Mexico,” said retired DEA special agent Phil Jordan. “We know why Kiki was taken from us — because the [Mexican] government was working in complicity with the godfathers of the drug trade…”
Caro fled Guadalajara two days after the kidnapping with his girlfriend and associates. Armando Pavón, the commander of the Mexican Federal Police heading the Camarena investigation, captured Caro shortly thereafter but allowed him to flee to Costa Rica, presumably on a bribe. The U.S. government launched an exhaustive investigation into Camarena’s murder. The lack of cooperation from the Mexican government led Commissioner of Customs William von Raab to order a six-day lockdown on the border. Camarena’s body was found within a week of the border closing.
Owing to the difficulty of extraditing Mexican citizens at the time, the DEA had two suspects secretly kidnapped and taken into the U.S. They were Humberto Álvarez, a physician who allegedly prolonged Camarena’s life so the torture could continue, and Javier Vásquez. Despite stern disapproval from the Mexican government, who felt their sovereignty was being violated (the president went so far as to threaten a halt to cooperation in antidrug efforts), Álvarez was tried and acquitted in United States District Court in Los Angeles. After a two-month trial, Vásquez was convicted of beating to death two tourists who accidentally entered a restaurant where cartel leaders were celebrating a marriage. The tourists were allegedly mistaken for DEA agents. Three other suspects — Honduran drug lord Juan Matta, Juan Bernabé, and Rubén Zuno — were found guilty of Camarena’s kidnapping.
Caro was arrested in Costa Rica on April 4, 1985, and extradited to Mexico City to be tried for the Camarena murder. Fonseca was captured by the Mexican Army at his villa in Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, a few days later. Fonseca did not confess to participating in the abduction of Camarena and even expressed outrage at the torture of the DEA agent. Regardless, both were sentenced to 40 years for drug trafficking and the murder of Camarena and Zavala. It was estimated that Caro’s fortune was in excess of U.S. $650 million at the time of his capture.
Félix continued to reign as the premier kingpin of Mexico until President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, seeking to fortify relations with the U.S. government, issued the order for Félix’s arrest for complicity in the murder of agent Camarena. On April 8, 1989, the notorious capo was taken into custody by a 12-man police task force fronted by federal police commander Guillermo González. Félix offered the men $5 million in exchange for his freedom, to no avail. Hours after his arrest, the entire Culiacán police force (about 300 men) was rounded up for interrogation about possible connection to Félix. About 90 deserted in the days following. Félix, whom Attorney General Enrique Alvarez del Castillo described as the “number-one narcotics trafficker in Mexico,’’ was charged with drug trafficking, bribery, and illegal possession of weapons and was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
‘’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.”
In order to actualize their international agenda, the Arellano Félix organization also recruited thugs from the United States, including gangsters from Logan Heights. The Arellano brothers were well on their way to becoming part of a drug-trafficking network that, according to U.S. authorities, was estimated to be worth between $13.6 and $48.4 billion per year.
In 1990, the Logan Heights community was home to 13,488 people, most of them Mexican immigrants. Forty-four percent of the neighborhood lived below the poverty level. Occupying four square miles of turf, the Logan Heights gang had over 400 members, making them San Diego’s largest Hispanic gang. The gang comprised several neighborhood sects, including Calle Treinta, Red Steps, Logan Heights 33rd, and Logan Heights 13.
The Logan Heights gangs date back to the car clubs in the ’70s, when automotive enthusiasts would cruise Southeast San Diego streets in customized vehicles. The club grew into a gang when they began dealing marijuana and, in the early ’80s, PCP. In the mid-’80s, after a string of homicides involving rival gangs Shell Town and Sherman Heights, David Barrón took control of the gang.
“David had this look,” retired San Diego Police officer Jorge Sánchez said in a History Channel Gangland special about Logan Heights. “And once you interacted with him, you knew the look. David was a murderer.”
Barrón made connections with members of the Arellano Félix organization in federal prison, proving his allegiance by performing hits for the cartel. When he was released in 1988, he had a job secured as bodyguard for Benjamín and Ramón. On November 8, 1992, Barrón demonstrated his loyalty to the Arellano brothers in Puerto Vallarta, when 40 Sinaloa cartel members dressed as federales and led by “El Chapo” Guzmán opened fire on the discotheque where the Arellano brothers were partying, killing innocent bystanders and eight Tijuana cartel members in an attempt to take out the capos. The attack was a retaliation against an increase in the transit tax that cartels had to pay to the Arellano brothers in exchange for transporting drugs across the Tijuana-Mexicali corridor. Barrón returned fire and helped the brothers escape through a bathroom skylight, thus establishing his position as an invaluable asset to the drug lords.
The incident was a wake-up call to the cartel bosses. Barrón was sent to recruit dozens of his Logan Heights thugs to be taken to an isolated ranch in Mexico, where they were trained with AK-47s, handguns, and grenades to be hit men, or sicarios. The gang was then released onto the streets of Tijuana dressed as federal police officers in siren-equipped vehicles to take out rivals of the cartel. The heavy artillery and cartel connection made Logan Heights the most renowned and powerful gang in San Diego. Chicano and Memorial Parks became no-man’s-lands, where gangsters would sell PCP-laced marijuana cigarettes. Gang violence increased as more drugs and weapons made their way into the hands of Logan Heights gangsters. The summer of 1993 saw the worst of it, when 26 people were murdered in San Diego as a result of a turf battle over the meth market between the Tijuana cartel and other competing organizations.
The reign of Logan Heights in Mexico came to an end on May 24, 1993, when a hit squad of more than 20 assassins were sent to Guadalajara to kill Sinaloa cartel boss “El Chapo” Guzmán at the airport. Guzmán was Mexico’s most-wanted drug trafficker, whose estimated net worth of $1 billion made him the 701st richest man in the world, according to Forbes magazine. It was reported that he would be arriving in a white Mercury Grand Marquis. When the vehicle arrived, the hired gangsters riddled the car with over 30 bullets before hopping a plane back to Tijuana. They soon learned, however, that they had hit the wrong car. In addition to the driver, they had inadvertently killed Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas, the ultimate faux pas in a 90-percent Catholic country.
Both Logan Heights and Tijuana cartel members were forced to lie low as the media continued to release information about the sacrilegious homicide. The heat brought on by the situation resulted in the arrest of the oldest Arellano brother, Francisco, who was detained in Tijuana in December 1993 and booked on weapons charges. In order to assuage the situation, Benjamín cut a deal with Mexican authorities, handing over $10 million and two Logan Heights assassins, Juan “Puma” Vasconez and Juan “Spooky” Méndez. Puma was convicted of weapons charges and sentenced to nine years. Spooky was killed in prison.
Logan Heights were cast out of Mexico, but in San Diego their reputation flourished. Violence skyrocketed with Logan Heights’ ego. The gang started selling methamphetamine and conducting business using cell phones and pagers, generating vast amounts of money dealing narcotics. In 1998, in response to Logan Heights’ escalated operation, the U.S. Attorneys Office indicted nine gang members who were part of the hit squad that killed the cardinal. Three pleaded guilty and were given 18 to 22 years. The San Diego Police Department also cracked down, putting many key members in jail.
Still, according to California Department of Justice special agent Steve Duncan, the connection to the Tijuana cartel remained strong. Logan Heights members who started as hit men went on to become lieutenants in the Arellano Félix organization.
The Reign of the Arellano-Félix Organization
The Arellano-Félix organization flourished from the mid-’90s to the early 2000s, when it was believed to have supplied over half of the cocaine sold in the United States. It solidified territory in the Mexican states of Sinaloa, Jalisco, Michoacán, Chiapas, and Baja California South and North with such brute force that the Drug Enforcement Agency dubbed it “one of the most powerful, violent, and aggressive drug-trafficking organizations in the world.”
The cartel used the 100-mile corridor between Tijuana and Mexicali as its primary point of entry for cocaine, marijuana, heroin, and methamphetamines. It sent “mules,” foot-traffickers carrying large backpacks, across the shoddily fenced border and used high-tech tunnels connected to rural farmhouses to transport billions of dollars of drugs into San Diego to be distributed across the United States. The San Ysidro-Tijuana border crossing, with over 50,000 vehicles crossing daily, was and still is a key entry point for illegal drugs.
Additionally, the organization maintained communications centers in major cities throughout Mexico, using radio scanners and other equipment capable of intercepting land-line and cellular phone calls to conduct electronic espionage and countersurveillance against law enforcement. Using high-tech command centers, the cartel kept tabs on its corrupted officials and the entire pecking-order of drug peddlers beneath them.
“[Drug lords] rule by terror,” said Errol Chavez, the special agent in charge of the DEA’s San Diego office, in a 2001 Time magazine story. Ramón Arellano was said to keep his adversaries in fear by employing a handful of grim execution techniques, such as suffocating rivals with a clear plastic bag while a henchman named El Gordo bounced on their chests. The “Colombian necktie” was reserved for informants, who had their throats cut below the chin and their tongues pulled out through the wound. But Ramón’s favorite ritual was said to be the carne asada — barbecuing adversaries on a bed of flaming tires while he and his men partied with tequila and cocaine.
Despite Ramón being on the FBI’s top-ten fugitive list, next to Osama bin Laden at one point, and Janet Reno’s $2 million reward for information about the capos, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported on March 8, 1994, that the Arellano brothers “have been sighted at Tijuana restaurants, accompanied by bodyguards, who included [Mexican] police officers.”
A few months after his arrest, in a 2002 interview with the Washington Post at La Palma maximum security federal prison, Benjamín said, “I’ve lived simply, not in hiding. I wasn’t calling attention to myself, but I wasn’t running from them. I went to the movies, to restaurants just like you. If I wanted to go somewhere, I got on a plane.”
Even so, the Arellano brothers remained untouchable for 13 years, famously distributing an estimated $1 million a week in bribes to Mexican politicians and police, according to extradition documents submitted by the government of Mexico. At one point, sources suggested that the state attorney general and almost 90 percent of the law-enforcement officers, prosecutors, and judges in Tijuana and the State of Baja California were on the payroll of the Arellano-Félix organization. The ubiquitous corruption went public in 1997, when President Ernesto Zedillo fired 1200 tainted officials who were believed to be on cartel payrolls nationwide.
Those who couldn’t be bought were killed. The policy was plata o plomo: silver or lead. Get on the cartel payroll or die. Such was the case with the director of the federal police force in Tijuana, Ernest Ibarra, who was executed along with two police officers by machine-gun fire in Mexico City. Ibarra had become director just 29 days earlier. The murder took place two days after he scolded his men, saying the police had become so corrupt they weren’t just friends with the traffickers, they were their servants. A Mexican Army officer was implicated in his murder.
Baja State Prosecutor Godin Gutiérrez was killed in front of his Tijuana home in January 1997. Gutiérrez had helped the DEA identify several assassins in the Arellano-Félix organization. He was shot over 100 times and then run over repeatedly by an automobile.
In another effort to discourage police corruption, President Zedillo sent a young police reformer, José Patiño, to clean up Tijuana’s sideways ranks. A DEA agent who investigated the cartel for years once said that Patiño, who lived in San Diego for safety reasons, was the only Mexican police officer he had ever worked with who he felt was honest. However, in April 2000, Patiño and two aides, special prosecutor Oscar Pompa and army captain Rafael Torres, were lured into a trap by two Mexican federal police officers who were trained by the U.S. to be part of a new, “clean” antidrug unit. Patiño and his aides were found in a ditch the next day with almost every bone in their bodies broken and their heads crushed by an industrial press. One policeman grimly remarked that their remains resembled bags of ice cubes.
American citizens were also subject to the cartel’s control. U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service inspector José Olvera at the Tijuana/San Ysidro border crossing pleaded guilty to taking nearly $90,000 in bribes to allow cartel shipments through. Olvera said he complied with the cartel because they had threatened to kidnap his five-year-old son, a tactic commonly employed by the organization.
“If relatively well paid U.S. agents aren’t immune to [corruption],” one Mexican prosecutor is quoted as saying in the Time article, “how can we expect Mexican police to be?”
Journalists, too, fell in the crosshairs of the Arellanos’ wrath. Editor of the Tijuana weekly Zeta, Jesús Blancornelas, was shot four times in broad daylight in 1997 by a group that included Logan Heights liaison Barrón. Blancornelas was severely wounded but survived. Barrón, however, took a stray bullet between the eyes and died on the scene. The editor was targeted for his extensive reporting on the cartel, which included publishing letters from mothers of Ramón’s victims calling Ramón a coward. Cartel gunmen killed the paper’s cofounder, Héctor “Gato” Félix, in April 1988, and chief editor Francisco Ortiz in June 2004. Reporters Without Borders, a nongovernment organization that defends the right of the press to report freely, called Mexico the most dangerous place in the world for journalists besides Iraq.
The cartel’s reign of terror showed no signs of slowing down until the early 2000s, when a series of events precipitated the sudden collapse of the Arellano empire and the arrest of Benjamín thanks to, of all things, the shape of his daughter’s chin.
The Fall of the Empire
“From 2000 to the present has been a process of gradual dismantling, not only of the Arellano-Félix organization but also all of the other major cartels,” says Shirk.
In February 2000, two days after President Zedillo issued an ultimatum to the Arellano brothers, Tijuana police chief Alfredo de la Torre was gunned down as he drove along the Tijuana River Canal. On March 12, armed soldiers arrested Arellano-Félix organization cofounder and mentor Jesús “El Chuy” Labra as he watched his son play soccer in Tijuana. In May, in response to the Patiño murder, federal police raided the Ensenada beachfront home of Ismael Higuera while he partied drunk and naked with two Colombian women, which resulted in the arrest of the key cartel lieutenant and eight of his cohorts. Higuera has been blamed for 40 murders, including those of police chief de la Torre, federal police commander Federico Benítez, Patiño, and his aides.
On February 10, 2002, while on their way to kill rival Ismael “Mayo” Zambada of the Sinaloa cartel at the height of Mazatlán’s Mardi Gras festival, Ramón and his Volkswagen Beetle full of narco-juniors were pulled over. The official version of the story says Ramón opened fire on the officer who flagged him for driving the wrong way down a one-way street. However, some investigators believe police officers on Zambada’s payroll shot first. Regardless, the incident left Ramón dead with an identification card on his body reading Jorge Pérez López, a Mexican version of John Smith. Only later, as they examined photos from the crime scene, did police officially realize they had killed one of the FBI’s ten most wanted fugitives. By then Ramón’s body was nowhere to be found. “Family members” had appropriated it from the undertaker shortly after it arrived.
Thanks to a network of paid informants, a government task force obtained numbers from cell phones found at the scene of Ramón’s shooting. Recent calls were traced back to Puebla, a small suburb 65 miles outside of Mexico City. Mexican agents had previously tracked a cartel money courier to the same town, where a young girl with a facial deformity was reported to have just moved with her family.
“Once we knew [Benjamín] was with his family, we could keep track of where he was by keeping track of his daughter with the very prominent chin,” Mexican defense minister Ricardo Vega said in a television interview. Her distinct features allowed special forces to identify and follow her to the Arellano home in Puebla, where locals knew the drug lord as Manuel Treviño, a family man with a pleasant disposition and a penchant for cigars. After conducting surveillance, troops broke in at 1:00 a.m. on March 9, arresting Benjamín at his suburban home, where candles burned at a shrine to the late Ramón and stacks of money littered the floors.
A few days later, one of the cartel’s top smugglers, Manuel “Tarzán” Herrera, was arrested in Tecate. The organization was further weakened the following month with the arrest of Tijuana police chief Carlos Otal, 20 Tijuana officers, and 20 state police officers who were believed to be on the cartel’s payroll.
Edgardo Leyva Escandon and Arellano siblings Javier, Eduardo, and sister Enedina resumed control of the cartel after the fall of Benjamín and Ramón. However, they soon faced new challenges when, in 2006, a newly elected President Felipe Calderón declared war on Mexico’s drug cartels and dispatched 6500 troops to dismantle the nation’s drug-trafficking organizations: 1242 federal police and soldiers were deployed to Tijuana to restore order to the city; 2443 suspects were arrested. Within two years of Calderón’s election, 178 suspects were extradited to the United States. Calderón’s iron-fist strategy, which relied primarily on the movement of large numbers of troops to affected areas, was criticized by Proceso as being overly aggressive and was given the derisive title of “Calderón’s Iraq.”
In 2007, the Mexican military raised commandos’ salaries to $1100 per month to dissuade soldiers from defecting to cartel payrolls. In response, cartels doubled the amount for their own troops, sweetening the pot for government officials to join the estimated 450,000 who made up Mexico’s drug-trafficking network.
“Corruption so engulfs Mexico that the creation of an honest, professional national police — albeit a sound idea — shimmers like a mirage in the Sonoran desert,” writes George W. Grayson in his book Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State?
A study published in 2004 by Mexico’s National Autonomous University found that, in nine out of ten cases, families did not inform police of kidnappings because they believed that law-enforcement agents and government officials were complicit in the crimes.
On May 23, 2008, as part of the Merida Initiative, a $1.5 billion security cooperation program between the U.S., Mexico, and Central America, the Senate allocated $400 million to aid Mexico’s drug war, ten times its previous annual allotment. Calderón continued to escalate his antidrug campaign. Well over 25,000 troops have been deployed in Mexico to date. Despite this hard-line campaign, an estimated 80 percent of the methamphetamine on the streets in the United States still comes from Mexico and an estimated 1100 tons of marijuana are smuggled across the border annually. The amount of cocaine imported into the U.S. through Mexico rose from just over half of the national total in 1990 to more than 90 percent in 2008, according to U.S. State Department estimates. Despite the estimated $40 billion a year the U.S. spends on intercepting shipments and arresting drug dealers and users, only about 5 to 15 percent of drugs coming into the U.S. are seized. The rest go to an estimated 13 million Americans monthly, who fuel the $200-billion-a-year industry.
An estimated 2000 drug-related violent deaths occurred in Mexico in 2006, rising to 2700 deaths in 2007 and to more than 5612 in 2008 (over 1000 of these murders took place in Tijuana within the first quarter of the year). The number peaked at over 6500 in 2009. As of this August, 2010 has already seen as many homicides as all of 2008. Mexico’s attorney general says at least 24,800 people have been killed in drug-gang violence since President Felipe Calderón launched his military-led offensive in 2006. While most of the victims were gang members killed by rivals or by the government, some were bystanders. At least 1100 police officers and soldiers died in the line of duty between 2006 and 2009. Tijuana ran counter to national trends with 657 killings in 2009, a 20 percent drop from 2008, when Tijuana violence peaked at 844 homicides. An estimated half of Tijuana’s killings in 2009 were connected to organized crime. Thirty-one of the year’s victims were Tijuana police officers.
Javier Arellano was captured in August 2006 by the U.S. Coast Guard while fishing off the coast of Baja California. A year later, he was sentenced in the U.S. to life in prison. The once highly organized Arellano-Félix organization began to unravel, with two main factions within the group feuding over control. Enedina and Fernando “the Engineer” Arellano, son of Alicia Arellano and nephew of the Arellano brothers, headed one group, while the notoriously gruesome Teodoro “El Teo” García led the other. The conflict came to a head over the last three months of 2008, when 443 murders took place on the streets of Tijuana.
On October 26, 2008, Eduardo, the last prominent Arellano brother, was arrested after a shootout in Tijuana. Cartel lieutenant Luis Vázquez was taken into custody the same day.
The New Breed
A new generation of traffickers has arisen to fill the void of the once-mighty Arellano-Félix organization — petty criminals who have diversified their activities to include bank robbery, stealing cars, and running rackets to beat up restaurant owners. Shirk describes them as “smaller, scrappier, less disciplined, and not tied to some of the old rules and customs we saw develop in the late ’80s and ’90s.” The press often calls them “medicated and uneducated.”
“We’re seeing a transition from the gangsterism of traditional hit men to paramilitary terrorism with guerrilla tactics,” as the Houston Chronicle in May 2007 quotes Luis Astorga, a drug-trafficking expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and co-author with Shirk of Drug Trafficking Organizations and Counter-Drug Strategies in the U.S.-Mexico Context (a report released this April analyzing U.S.-Mexico security cooperation).
A perfect example of the new breed is “El Teo” García, who established an unprecedented reputation for brutality and violence by running a profitable kidnapping ring, littering the streets of Tijuana with victims’ bodies, and having over 300 bodies dissolved in acid by his “stew-maker,” Santiago Meza.
“He splintered away from AFO and attempted to carve out his own domain, literally by carving people up,” says Shirk. “Compare Ramón to El Teo, and [Ramón] looks like a gentleman.”
More than 100 people were killed in a two-week period last October when Sánchez again clashed with “El Teo,” who had the support of the largely untouched Sinaloa cartel.
The old organizations, by virtue of their negotiated agreements with authorities, didn’t have to engage in fearmongering behavior. But the changing political climate in Mexico has made corruption, and thus a certain stability, more difficult to accomplish.
“I would say it’s much harder today to buy a public Mexican official than it was in the past,” Shirk says. “And you have to buy more people at more points in the system to connect the dots. In the past, you bought the governor or someone at the cabinet level, and it was all taken care of. The problem today is there’s too much democracy. Elected officials don’t all sing the same tune. They aren’t on the same team.”
On March 9, 2009, the Mexican Army confirmed the arrest of 26 members of the Tijuana cartel. El Teo was arrested on January 12 of this year by Mexican federal police at his estate in La Paz.
With all of the major players dead or in jail, the Arellano-Félix organization is now often referred to in the media as the Fernando Sánchez cartel. Jesús Quiñonez, the international liaison for the Baja California state attorney general’s office, was arrested this July and charged with sharing confidential information with drug traffickers and arranging the arrests of Sánchez’s rivals. Forty-two other defendants, many of whom were living in San Diego communities from Imperial Beach to Poway, were charged in a federal racketeering complaint that cites murder and kidnapping among other crimes. Authorities confiscated a ton of marijuana, 30 pounds of meth, and 15 pounds of cocaine during the investigation. Sánchez has been charged but not yet apprehended. A week later, 62 additional current and former officers were detained on suspicion of working with cartels. The purge came at the end of a two-year investigation into corruption that expunged more than 400 officers from Tijuana’s police department.
“When an official says something or an arrest is made, it’s very hard to tell if they’re acting in the public interest or if they’re acting in the interest of the cartels,” Shirk says. “When you take out the competition, someone benefits. In this case, it’s ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán of the Sinaloa cartel, which remains virtually untouched by this administration…. Dozens of high-ranking officials of this administration have been later identified to be on the take for one organization or another…. Until they take out Ismael Zambada or ‘Chapo’ Guzmán, in my view, there’s going to be a lot of suspicion about whether the Sinaloa cartel is somehow being protected by the Calderón administration.”
Shirk and Astorga’s report identifies four possible approaches to containing drug-related violence in Mexico. The first is more or less what the Calderón administration has been engaged in for the past four years: direct confrontation with the goal of fracturing organizations into smaller groups that can be managed by local authorities. Ultimately, the aim of this approach would be to direct drug-trafficking routes away from Mexico and thus starve the fractured trafficking cells out of business. The question now is whether this can be accomplished with the current militarized line of attack or if a more covert, intelligence-oriented strategy would prove more successful. So far, Calderón’s approach has provided something of a paradox: while cartels have been severely crippled by his efforts, the past few years have been the most violent and unstable in recent history.
The second approach is complicity, to some degree, with the cartels. This would involve making a pact so that cartels and government could operate harmoniously, as was the case in the early years of Mexican drug trafficking. Obviously the least desirable approach for law-enforcement agencies, this option appears highly unlikely.
A third alternative is to eliminate the black market with treatment and prevention. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimated that illegal drug consumption costs America more than $181 billion annually and states that “for every dollar spent on addiction treatment programs, there is a $4 to $7 reduction in cost of drug-related crimes.” While a viable option, it is unknown how much effect this approach would have on aggregate consumption and thus organized crime.
The fourth option is to move away from prohibition and toward regulation of currently illegal substances, either via decriminalization or re-legalization. Decriminalization would allow law enforcement to focus on high-level drug traffickers and also reduce harsh penalties for personal use, which would theoretically encourage addicts to seek treatment and thus reduce the market. In November, Californians will vote on Proposition 19, also known as the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010, which polls suggest will be supported by the majority of voters. If it passes, the new provision would allow California to generate an estimated $1.3 billion in revenue and save another $1 billion on enforcement and incarceration. It would also drop the price of an ounce of marijuana from $375 to around $38 before taxes, effectively destroying the California market for Mexican marijuana, which is generally of poorer quality than locally grown, medicinal-grade marijuana. The overall detriment to organized crime is unknown, as the modern Mexican gangster has diversified his activities and no longer relies solely on trafficking revenue.
Baja California Governor José Osuna opposes legalization of illicit drugs and has repeatedly stated that the solution lies in reducing demand in the United States and Mexico. Tightening borders have redirected some drug traffickers’ attention back to the streets of Tijuana, where an estimated 200,000 drug addicts, many of them children, make the city the highest per capita in drug abuse in the country.
“The Arellano-Félix organization is no longer the organization it once was,” says Shirk. “What I don’t know, and what I imagine we’ll find out in the coming year or two…is have they succeeded in fending off the onslaught from the Sinaloa cartel and gotten back to business as usual? Or has a new deal been made? Did they make an agreement…[to] let Sinaloa move product through because they’re tired of the war? I don’t know what arrangement has been made, but it seems as though there is a peace.”