Sunday, May 21, 2006
The billion-dollar Mexican drug cartels that operate on both sides of our border may be more powerful than the Mafia at its peak. And the notorious Tijuana Cartel’s coziness with the U.S.-based Mexican Mafia threatens a chilling escalation of violence and terrorism on our turf.
There were bodies everywhere,” said one of the cops at the scene. “It looked like a scene from Rambo.”
The grisly massacre—the worst yet in Mexico’s ongoing drug war—occurred last September 17 in the suburb of El Sauzal, 5 miles north of Ensenada and just 60 miles south of San Diego. The 19 victims included five women, seven children, two infants and a 17-year-old girl who was eight months pregnant. A gang of men dressed in black pulled them all from their beds at 3 a.m., herded them outside and machine-gunned them as they lay face down on a patio.
Mexican authorities later arrested three suspects linked to the ruthless Tijuana Cartel run by the notorious Arellano Félix brothers. The cartel’s enforcer, Ramón Eduardo Arellano-Félix, suspected in the killing of a Roman Catholic cardinal in 1993, was already on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List.
The atrocity prompted many analysts to decry the increasing “Colombianization” of Mexico’s “narco-democracy.” In a syndicated editorial, crusading Tijuana journalist—and assassination-attempt survivor—J. Jesús Blancornelas warned Mexicans and Americans alike that the Baja killings signaled “a chilling escalation in the business of drug-related executions.”
Indeed, many el norte law-enforcement agencies warily viewed the Ensenada massacre as a calculated act of terrorism. A message. Narcotraficantes gained control of Colombia in the 1980s through extortion and a brazen willingness to kill anyone from police to politicians to journalists—and their relatives. The same has been happening in Mexico for the past decade. Could the United States be next?
Los Angeles Sheriff’s Narcotics Bureau Sergeant Ed Huffman explains the cause for concern: “The Mexican cartels are currently more active in Southern California than any other crime group. They are very violent in Mexico. And their organizations work both sides of the border.”
The Tijuana Cartel, which controls the western half of the 2,000-mile United States–Mexico border, and the competing Juárez Cartel, which controls the eastern half, have emerged as the two dominant forces in the Mexican drug trade. As many as 100 smaller groups are allied with or pay “tolls” to one or the other. Estimates of their combined earnings from the smuggling of cocaine, heroin and marijuana into the United States range from $10 billion to $30 billion a year. They spend an estimated $500 million a year on bribes—about twice the entire budget of the Mexican attorney general’s office.
The cartels have bought top politicians and military leaders. They’ve made a play at two presidents. They’ve built million-dollar “narco tunnels” under the border and turned major banks into money laundries. Pop singers write narcocorridos (narco ballads) about them. One expert described the Mexican cartels as being 10 times as powerful as the U.S. Mafia at its peak.
The Arellano-Félix or Tijuana Cartel, many experts say, is now one of the most powerful criminal organizations in the world. Ramón, Benjamin and Javier Arellano-Félix are second-generation narcotraficantes, sophisticated billionaire yuppies with their own jets and state-of-the-art surveillance and communications systems. They have squads of lawyers, CPAs and consultants. They have long been operating at large, turning up in Hawaii, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and here in San Diego. Most officials believe they now run their operation from inside the United States.
Although modern, the Arellanos remain brazenly primitive when it comes to violence, authorities say, employing “plomo o plata” (lead or silver—i.e., bullets or bribes) to advance their interests.
“Killing is a party for the Arellanos,” one insider-turned-informant told reporters in 1996. They’ve shown no compunction about killing law enforcement officials. Among their alleged victims: Tijuana Police Chief Federico Benítez-López, chief prosecutor José Arturo Ochoa-Palacios, Baja prosecutor Sergio Moreno-Pérez, federal prosecutor Jesús Romero Magaña and Tijuana’s federal police commander, Ernesto Ibarra-Santes—all brutally ambushed. The Arellanos also are believed to have been involved in the Tijuana assassination of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in 1994.
The Ensenada massacre was part of an internecine war that produces an annual body count in the thousands. While some reports indicated it was just another hit that got out of hand, some observers were not so sure. Cartel violence is a winding road of incidents triggered by previous acts of treachery and betrayal. Authorities and citizens alike could only speculate if this was again the case.
Just a week before the Ensenada massacre, the bullet-riddled corpse of drug lord Rafaél Muñoz-Talavera was found in the trunk of a car in Juárez. At the very least, this was an interesting coincidence. Talavera had been one of Mexico’s top traffickers in 1989 when he was connected to the biggest drug bust in U.S. history—the seizure of 21.5 tons of cocaine at a warehouse in Sylmar, near Los Angeles. After serving a few years in a Mexican prison, Talavera returned to the drug trade. At the time of his death, it was rumored he was trying to take control of the Juárez Cartel, unstable since the June 1997 death of its leader, Amado Carillo-Fuentes. Some believed Talavera, perhaps as an agent of the Arellanos, was behind Carillo-Fuentes’ bizarre demise.
Carillo-Fuentes, known as “Lord of the Skies”—for the fleet of Boeing 727s that he used to fly in Colombian cocaine—was Mexico’s number-one drug baron at the time of his death. His murder triggered at least 60 killings: lawyers, accountants, traffickers, innocent bystanders. The slaughter was so brutal that thousands of Juárez residents took to the streets in a November 1997 protest march.
Although it was initially reported that Carillo-Fuentes had died from complications after plastic surgery at a Mexico City hospital, it was later revealed that he was, in fact, overdosed by his own doctors. The tortured bodies of his three plastic surgeons turned up four months later. Some believe Carillo-Fuentes’ brother Vincent tortured the doctors to find out who paid them. Some believe it was the Arellanos, or perhaps Talavera, acting on their behalf. Others speculate that Vincent, who has since assumed leadership of the Juárez Cartel, had his brother removed. Nobody knows for sure. The cartels don’t issue press releases when they decide to reorganize.
Part of U.S. law enforcement’s concern about the cartels’ northern encroachment is their potential influence on the Mexican Mafia—a separate and distinct criminal entity that controls many of Southern California’s drug-dealing street gangs. While it’s apparent the cartels are suppliers and the gangs are distributors, little is known about the nature of their relationship.
The violence of the Mexican Mafia, or la Eme, while highly feared in the United States, is restrained whencompared to that of the Mexican cartels. “The Mexican Mafia tends to be more secretive and selective when it comes to murder, “ says one DEA agent. “The cartels butcher them and leave them, like in Ensenada, to let people know they’re serious.”
La Eme has, in fact, acted to curb the killing of innocents, directing gang members to do “walk-ups” instead of “drive-bys.” San Diego police statistics show this has led to at least a 28 percent reduction in drive-by shootings since 1995. Some officers say it’s probably 50 percent. The Mexican Mafia has demonstrated that it considers too much violence to be bad for business. The worst recent la Eme incident in Southern California was the 1995 El Monte slaying of five—including two children. The hit men killed not only their target but a whole family. One of the perpetrators was later slain in prison—reportedly on orders from the Mexican Mafia.
The only known link between la Eme and the Arellano-Félix cartel was Davíd Barrón-Corona, a member of the Logan 30s, a division of one of San Diego’s largest and most violent street gangs. Barron’s story is a troubling tale of two cities, two nations and two criminal empires. Born in Tijuana, he emigrated to San Diego in 1970 and became a naturalized U.S. citizen. A gang member at 13 and a killer at 16, Barrón was 18 when he was sent to San Quentin, where he joined la Eme, reportedly carrying out a number of prison hits. He spent the 1980s in and out of U.S. prisons, finally moving to Tijuana in 1990 to work as a bodyguard for the Arellano-Félix brothers.
Barrón was soon wanted on both sides of the border for a number of brutal crimes. According to San Diego police, Barrón recruited Logan 30s street gang members as gatilleros (hired killers) for the Arellanos. Years later, indictments filed by U.S. Attorneys in San Diego would state that Barrón enlisted “henchmen from among Logan Heights gang members ... who were then directed to murder and kidnap rivals in order to secure and maintain the Arellanos’ control over drug trafficking along the border.” Barrón and associates were also wanted for the killings of two federal prosecutors and, most notably, for the assassination of Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas-Ocampo on May 24, 1993 in Guadalajara.
The killing of the cardinal, a crime that shocked the world and turned a harsh media spotlight on the Mexican cartels, was actually a mistake. According to accounts later obtained by authorities, Barrón and his San Diego Logan 30s henchmen—along with Ramón Arellano-Félix himself—were at the Guadalajara airport to kill rival Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán-Loera. The cardinal, sitting in a car in front of Guzmán’s armored Buick, was mistaken for the crime boss. The gang opened fire, killing the cardinal, his driver and six others in a hail of bullets.
The attempt on Guzmán-Loera was believed to be in retaliation for an attempted 1993 hit on Ramón and Javier Arellano-Félix at the disco Christine in Puerto Vallarta. Guzman had sent 40 gunmen into the nightclub, where the Arellano brothers were having a party. Nine people died in the wild shootout that ensued. Davíd Barrón reportedly killed a number of Guzman’s henchmen before saving the Arellanos by spiriting them away.
Barrón finally met his end on Thanksgiving Day 1997, while attempting to assassinate J. Jesús Blancornelas, editor of the Tijuana weekly newspaper Zeta. Blancornelas, who had aggressively investigated the Tijuana Cartel, was ambushed by Barrón and 10 assailants, who sprayed his Ford Explorer with shotgun and machine-gun fire. Blancornelas survived four bullet wounds, but his driver/bodyguard was killed. Barrón, 34, was felled by a bullet fragment fired by his own gang. He was wearing a bulletproof vest and socks with four-leaf clovers. His body was covered with tattoos, including EME across his chest, LHTS (for Logan Heights) and 16 skulls—one for each of his hits.
U.S. authorities described Barrón as “an important member of the criminal organization headed by the Arellano-Félix brothers.” The fact that he was also affiliated with the Mexican Mafia was troubling. Sergeant David Contreras of the SDPD Gang Suppression Unit explains: “It’s believed that Davíd Barrón’s overall plan was to recruit Mexican Mafia members into his own little army of killers, work for the Arellano-Félix cartel as assassins and eventually incorporate the Mexican Mafia with them.”
Some have speculated that Barrón and the Mexican Mafia had designs on taking over the Arellano cartel. Whatever his plan, Barrón obviously had forsaken la Eme’s restrained approach toward violence and embraced the more savage ways of the Tijuana cartel.
In February 1998, nine other San Diego gang members were indicted in U.S. federal court on conspiracy charges tying them to the Arellano-Félix cartel. Former SDPD Chief Jerry Sanders told reporters that San Diego was “in a position where we are sharing criminals with Mexico, unfortunately.” Three of those indicted have since copped pleas and received sentences ranging from 18 to 20 years. Six others remain at large. The most notorious of these, Alfredo “Big Popeye” Araujo-Ávila and Marcos “Pato” Quiñones-Sánchez, like David Barrón-Corona, are also believed to have ties with la Eme.
A 1997 Los Angeles trial of 13 alleged Mexican Mafia members—the largest organized-crime prosecution in L.A. history —provided many revelations about la Eme. The evidence, including some 300 audio- and videotapes, tied defendants to the killings or attempted murders of 25 people and the use of extortion and threats to control Southern California street gangs and drug sales. Three of the murder victims, including gang counselor Ana Lizarraga, had served as advisers on the 1992 movie American Me, a fictional portrayal of la Eme. The trial ended in 12 convictions and 10 life sentences.
Task force investigations of both the cartels and la Eme are ongoing in Southern California. The Arellanos’ reputed trafficking chief in Los Angeles, Jorge “Jefe” Castro, and eight others were indicted on federal drug charges in July 1998. Cocaine shipments totaling 7,600 pounds and more than $15 million in cash allegedly tied to Castro were seized at locations throughout Southern California, including Escondido.
Last February, 10 drug traffickers were arrested in San Diego, Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties, some of them identified by the FBI as being “connected with” the Arellano-Félix cartel. Another investigation spearheaded by the U.S. Attorney culminated at the same time with predawn raids by 200 officers and the arrests of 16 suspected Mexican Mafia members throughout Los Angeles County.
Fortunately, most gang activity in San Diego to date has nothing to do with the cartels or the Mexican Mafia. “Most of our gang shootings occur over girls, cars, jewelry and shoes,” says Lieutenant Melvin Maxwell of the SDPD Street Gang Unit. He points out that only eight killings of San Diego’s 42 last year were gang-related.
FBI stats for 1997 show there were 67 murders in San Diego. Los Angeles, by contrast, had 576—half of which are estimated to be gang-related.
Special Agent Vince Rice of the DEA’s San Diego office worked the border in San Ysidro for five years. “We have no proof of the Mexican Mafia controlling local gangs, and I don’t know if anybody does, because those guys don’t talk about it. But it’s kind of understood they have some kind of affiliation.”
Garland Peed of the San Diego District Attorney’s Gang Unit says: “Most of their power is inside [the prisons]. Street gangs fear them because if they do go into custody, they’re exposed to them.”
Sergeant David Contreras of the SDPD says that the Mexican Mafia doesn’t actually control any street gangs in San Diego. “They have influence because of the fear and intimidation,” Contreras says, “but we don’t have that problem where they tax gangs 10 percent, like they do in L.A.”
But San Diego deputy D.A. Marty Martins, who works as a liaison at the DEA, disagrees. The Mexican Mafia may not tax the gangs 10 percent on all their dealings, he says, but it does tax them on drug transactions.
The DEA’s Rice worked with two gang informants who turned up dead in Tijuana —shot execution style in the back of the heads—even after he warned them not to go there. “They waited for them to cross the border,” he says. “Gangs prefer to do their hits in Mexico, because they know they won’t get the same attention as they would in the U.S.”
Some believe this explains the relatively low number of gang killings in San Diego compared to Los Angeles. But evidence indicates that some victims dumped in Tijuana have actually been snatched up first in San Diego, where they were murdered. In one year (1994), Tijuana authorities say, the bodies of five San Diego murder victims turned up across the border
SDPD’s Contreras doesn’t believe San Diego will ever experience anything like the cartel violence in Mexico, where 12 officers were killed this year in a three-month period. “Our department is very well prepared for them, both physically and mentally,” he says. “They know the consequences. We have good intelligence from working with DEA, federal, state and local agencies. We know their tactics. And their money doesn’t buy many police officers here.”
Nonetheless, SDPD has already taken precautionary steps, instituting an annual safety course called the International Police Programs. These workshops present officers with varied scenarios, teaching them how to best survive attacks, how to conduct “hot stops” on felony suspects and confront individuals who are possibly armed.
Opinion is split on whether Baja-style violence will soon reach San Diego. Our justice system isn’t as corrupt as Mexico’s, experts say. Others, however, warn that the cartels are practiced in the art of corruption and that more U.S. drug cops are succumbing to their often staggeringly huge bribes. And unlike the Mexican Mafia, the cartels may not shy away from a war with law enforcement.
Laura Birkmier, an assistant U.S. Attorney in San Diego, allows as how there is some concern; a prosecutor involved in a cartel-related case, in fact, received some threats last year. “It’s not commonplace,” says Birkmier, “but there are cases where U.S. federal prosecutors get threatened.”
Still, most U.S. drug cops are confident. Says one federal agent based in San Diego: “Let’s just say that if that ever happened [the cartels attacking U.S. law enforcement], our administration would probably give us the means and latitude to do what we had to do.”
Peace between the Tijuana and Juárez cartels, meanwhile, is unlikely. Any truce will be temporary and fraught with betrayal, experts say, for their war is not merely business but personal. An Arellano associate once infiltrated the organization of a Fuentes lieutenant, seducing his wife and persuading her to run away with him—after taking $7 million of her husband’s money. The Arellano man then had the woman decapitated and sent her head in a box to the Fuentes lieutenant. Officials believe he also drowned the man’s two children, throwing them off a bridge in Venezuela.
As for la Eme and the cartels, “there is a compelling logic for their collaboration and alliance,” says Peter H. Smith, UCSD’s director of Latin-American studies. “The Arellano-Félix organization wants local distributors. And to the Mexican Mafia, the Arellano-Félix cartel is like the Microsoft of their world.” Any alliance, of course, will be predatory, opportunistic and treacherous. Although he isn’t sure it will occur, Smith believes war between the two is a very real and “hellacious” possibility.
“My guess is that the culture of the two groups is less different than the environments in which they operate,” says Smith. If the two unite or cooperate, he says, one possible outcome is that the Mexican Mafia will become as brazenly violent as the Tijuana Cartel. “In that case, my guess is they would soon be out of business.”
The other possibility is that the Arellanos will learn from the Mexican Mafia and adopt a more subtle use of violence, much like the Cali cartel did in Colombia. “That is actually not a positive scenario,” Smith concludes. “It would make the Arellano-Félix cartel more durable and efficient, even stronger as an organization. It might lead to less violence in the short term—but to even greater power for them in the long term.”
posted by REPORTER at 10:18 PM
What was the source of this article? Interesting story, for sure?
"The cartels don’t issue press releases when they decide to reorganize."
What?!? Listen cartels... you will respect authoritai and you will issue press releases.
On the serious side. A very interesting article.
very good work this is very good.
Post a Comment
Links to this post:
posted by <$BlogBacklinkAuthor$> @ <$BlogBacklinkDateTime$>
Create a Link
2 convicted in mistaken-identity killing
17-year-old held in weekend shooting of 14-year-ol...
Juan Soria took part of the 1991 killings of his f...
ANOTHER SHOTCALLER LOCK UP.
MEXICAN MAFIA IN POMONA