June 14, 2002
Drug cartel's state network disrupted
39 arrested in Arrellano Félix crackdown
By Marisa Taylor
JOE CANTLUPE and David Zahniser
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
Four drug-trafficking networks affiliated with the Tijuana-based
Arellano Félix cartel have been dismantled after a law enforcement
sweep stretching from Torrance to San Diego, federal and state
Hundreds of officers fanned out across Southern California yesterday morning, arresting 39 suspects, ranging from high-level drug traffickers to street-level dealers, officials said.
In San Diego County, Ramon Meave and Isiah Veyti, both 21, were
arrested in Spring Valley on state drug charges and taken to Los
Angeles to be arraigned.
The sweep marks the first significant Arellano cartel-related arrests in the United States since the death of Ramón Arellano Félix and the arrest of his brother, Benjamín.
Yesterday's crackdown chipped away at the cartel's infrastructure by
eliminating four groups that distribute cocaine, heroin and other
drugs, said Michele Leonhart, special agent in charge of the Drug
Enforcement Administration's Los Angeles office.
Each network collected money, moved drugs across the border,
distributed drugs to dealers in Los Angeles and exported drugs to
cities as far away as Boston and Newark, N.J., Leonhart said.
The arrests bolster the offensive Mexican authorities have launched
against the Arellano cartel in the past two years. At least three reputed members of its second tier of leaders are now in Mexican prisons. And in February, Ramón Arellano, the cartel's enforcer and one of the FBI's most wanted fugitives, died in a shootout with Mexican law enforcement officials in Mazatlan. Within a month, his brother, Benjamín, the cartel's financial chief, was arrested in the city of Puebla.
Despite these setbacks to the cartel, U.S. authorities said the
organization has remained strong by holding on to its Colombian
cocaine contacts. Donald Thornhill Jr., a DEA spokesman in San Diego, said the gang continues to transport cocaine across the U.S.-Mexico border.
"To say that we've dismantled the cartel would be naive and
misleading," Thornhill said.
U.S. authorities believe two other Arellano brothers – Eduardo, 46,
and Javier, 33 – may be stepping into leadership roles.
Eduardo, who reportedly has a medical degree, is said to be interested in the financial aspects of the operation. Javier, described by one law enforcement source as "violent in his own right," has emerged as the new enforcer.
Yesterday's arrests capped Operation Vise Grip, a two-year
investigation into U.S. distributors connected with the cartel.
In late afternoon, authorities were still searching for more than two
dozen suspects, including Bernardo "Don Ben" DelaCerra, a fugitive in Mexico who is suspected of heading a family-run cell based in the San Gabriel Valley and the Inland Empire.
DelaCerra's wife and daughter worked as money couriers, while his
sons – Bernard Angel and Anthony – served as cocaine distributors,
investigators said. Anthony DelaCerra, who was arrested yesterday,
lived in Rancho Cucamonga and worked out of his Pasadena repair
shop, Fair Oaks Auto Body.
To date, Operation Vise Grip has involved four wiretap investigations that have resulted in the arrests of 234 suspects nationwide and the seizure of $13.9 million worth of drugs. The investigation has involved more than two dozen law enforcement agencies.
But one federal official, who declined to be identified, described those arrested as among the cartel's many "worker bees."
The cartel is well-organized and has "plenty of others," the official said. "They load up the cash, go on the freeway and just pay a lot of people."
Overall, Mexico's crackdown on its drug cartels has caused "broad
disruption" among narco-traffickers, but emerging smaller groups
working together or separately may pose new obstacles to law
enforcement, said John P. Walters, White House director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, in a recent interview.
Some federal officials fear smaller groups could even be tougher to
crack. They compare them to elusive terrorist rings whose operations often are disguised through varying patterns of conduct and fluid membership.
DEA intelligence reports suggest some Mexican traffickers may be
poised to transport even greater loads of cocaine across the Southwest border in coming years.
"In Colombia, they broke up some of the cartels and then had drug
problems worse than ever," said Michael Shifter, a senior fellow with the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank that examines Western Hemisphere issues. "The question is whether we'll see something comparable in Mexico."
For now, however, U.S. authorities are celebrating their latest move
against an organization linked to as many as 1,000 killings and known for paying millions of dollars in bribes to public officials to keep its operations running smoothly.
"We have disrupted the trafficking of the AFO," said Leonhart, from the Los Angeles DEA office, referring to the Arellano Félix organization. "Obviously, the nature of it is that there are other people standing in to take over, but we have disrupted the flow and disrupted their transportation to Los Angeles and other parts of the country."