San Diego Union Tribune
August 17, 2006
Mexican cartel's leader is seized off Baja coast
U.S. Coast Guard intercepts Arellano Félix near La
Paz; court hearing is set in S.D.
By Onell R. Soto, Anna Cearley and Otto Kreisher
STAFF WRITERS / COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
A kingpin in the notorious Arellano Félix
drug cartel was arrested Monday on a fishing boat off the
coast of Baja California and was on his way to San Diego
yesterday to face racketeering and conspiracy charges.
CHARLIE NEUMAN / Union-Tribune
Signs posted at the Otay Mesa Port of Entry detailed
the $5 million reward for information leading to
Francisco Javier Arellano Felix. Motorists passed
through the busy international border crossing last
Francisco Javier Arellano Félix – the leader of a
Mexican cartel that smuggled tons of cocaine and
marijuana, built sophisticated drug tunnels and killed
rivals and police – was among eight men and three boys
detained aboard a deep-sea fishing boat intercepted by a
San Diego-based Coast Guard vessel in international
waters, officials said.
Those taken into custody 15 nautical miles from La Paz,
Mexico, included two men identified by U.S. officials as
assassins for the cartel, Arturo Villareal Heredia and
Arellano and others arrested with him are due in
federal court in San Diego today or tomorrow.
He faces life in prison if convicted of the charges in
a 2003 indictment, but prosecutors are likely to
re-evaluate the evidence and could add charges that could
bring the death penalty if he is convicted.
Regarded as a playboy with a vicious streak, Arellano,
37, took over the Tijuana cartel in 2002 after one of his
older brothers, Ramón, was killed and another, Benjamín,
was arrested, officials said.
“We've taken the head off the snake,” said Michael
Braun, chief of operations for the Drug Enforcement
Administration, during a news conference in Washington.
Experts said it's unclear whether someone new would
step up to lead the crime organization or whether it would
disintegrate under pressure from rival cartels and law
NICK WASS / Associated Press
Michael Braun (left), chief of operations for the
Drug Enforcement Administration, announced the
arrest of drug lord Francisco Javier Arellano Felix
yesterday. Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty
(right) said Arellano at first tried to use a false
identity, but later admitted his true identity.
But they said the arrests will not stem for long the
flow of drugs through Tijuana and San Diego on their way
to an insatiable U.S. market.
They said that although the Tijuana cartel's reach was
diminished from its pre-eminence in the 1990s, it was
powerful enough to dig a half-mile tunnel from Tijuana to
an Otay Mesa warehouse. The tunnel was discovered in
Adm. Thad Allen, Coast Guard commandant, said the
43-foot Dock Holiday was boarded about 9 a.m. Monday by a
detachment from the Monsoon, a San Diego-based Navy
coastal patrol craft on lease to the Coast Guard.
Arellano at first tried to use a false identity, but
later admitted who he really was, Deputy Attorney General
Paul McNulty said.
The arrests were the result of a tip on the location of
the fishing boat, which authorities had linked to the
Arellano Félix organization, McNulty said.
The three youths found aboard the boat will be returned
to Mexico, a prosecutor said.
McNulty would not say who was behind the tip, but said
the interception of the boat was the result of
“extraordinary coordination and cooperation” between
Mexican and U.S. officials.
Closing in on a
notorious cartel's brothers
Benjamín Arellano Félix
The cartel's suspected former chief executive,
who was captured in Mexico in 2002. He remains in
prison, fighting drug charges.
Francisco Rafael Arellano Félix
Imprisoned in Mexico since 1993 on weapons and
bribery charges. He is said to be the oldest
brother in the family. U.S. authorities are
attempting to extradite him to face an indictment
in San Diego for possession and conspiracy to
Francisco Javier Arellano Félix
Arrested this week on a sportfishing boat off
the Baja California coast. He was charged with
drug conspiracy in a federal indictment unsealed
in 2003 in San Diego. The indictment charges that
the cartel used fishing boats, private planes,
trucks and commercial airliners to transport drugs
into the United States. Nine other members of the
cartel, including another brother, Eduardo, also
were charged in the indictment.
Ramón Arellano Félix
The cartel's suspected top enforcer until he
was killed in a shootout with Mexican police in
the state of Sinaloa in 2002.
Eduardo Arellano Félix
At large. He is listed as a top leader with the
Arellanos by the Drug Enforcement Administration,
which issued a $5 million reward for information
leading to his arrest. He is described as a
reclusive former medical student who oversees the
Other brothers and sisters are believed to have
roles in the drug group, but not as much is known
U.S. officials have offered a $5 million reward for
information leading to Arellano. Known by his middle name,
Javier, as well as the nickname “El Tigrillo,” or “little
tiger,” Arellano was one of seven leaders of the
organization named in the indictment unsealed in San Diego
He also has been linked to several police shootings in
Baja California, though never formally charged.
He has escaped capture in Mexico several times in
recent years, according to the Tijuana newsweekly
Zeta, which follows drug-trafficking trends closely.
“Though I didn't know him personally, he was seen as
being imprudent and violent,” said Victor Clark, a
Tijuana-based human rights activist and an expert on
The 2003 indictment charged Javier Arellano and others
with racketeering, conspiracy to import tons of marijuana
and cocaine, and conspiracy to launder money. It asks a
judge to order the cartel leaders to forfeit nearly $300
million in drug proceeds.
Prosecutors described Arellano at the time as head of
the cartel's Tijuana and Mexicali operations.
They linked him and other cartel leaders to 20 killings
in the United States and Mexico, the smuggling of massive
amounts of drugs, the laundering of millions of dollars
and the bribing of Mexican military and police officials.
The cartel's operations included using backpackers to
bring marijuana through the desert, buying hundreds of
guns and bulletproof vests in the United States for use in
Mexico, wiretapping rival drug traffickers and Mexican
police, and using specially armored vehicles equipped with
guns and smoke dispensers.
It also made deals with Colombian cartels for the
transportation of tons of cocaine into the United States,
In Mexico, authorities have linked the cartel to the
killings of Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo of
Guadalajara in 1993 and Tijuana city police chief Federico
Benitez in 1994.
In 1997, a crew of Arellano Félix gunmen killed 19
members of three families – including five women and seven
children – near Ensenada. Authorities described the
massacre as retaliation for an unpaid debt.
Jesús Blancornelas, then editor of Zeta,
survived an ambush in which he was shot four times by a
suspected cartel hit squad led by a San Diego gang member.
Drug-trafficking experts said that although the arrest
is significant, it doesn't signal the end of the Arellano
cartel and could even lead to more violence.
“This is a major step forward, and it will bring some
serious consequences as other drug-trafficking
organizations now maneuver or take advantage of the
weakness of the cartel,” said David Shirk, director of the
University of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute.
The cartel managed to continue functioning in 2002
after Mexican authorities arrested its suspected CEO,
Benjamín, and after his brother Ramón, known as the top
enforcer, died in a shootout with police.
Benjamín Arellano is in Mexican custody. U.S. officials
have been seeking to extradite him for years, so far
unsuccessfully. In prison interviews with U.S.
journalists, he has maintained his innocence.
In 2003, U.S. and Mexican sources told The San Diego
Union-Tribune that the cartel had lost its grip on
the eastern part of the Baja California border to rival
Cartels led by Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada and Joaquín “El
Chapo” Guzmán have increased their reach, experts said.
The Arellanos, however, appeared to maintain their sway
along the key transit point of Tijuana.
With Javier's arrest, a U.S. law enforcement official
said Eduardo Arellano is likely to have a more active role
in the cartel's operations, along with Gustavo Rivera
Martinez, a California native who reportedly is in charge
of day-to-day operations.
The official spoke anonymously because the
investigation is sensitive and investigators aren't
supposed to talk about it.
Rivera, 45, is described by law enforcement as a
confidant and adviser to Javier Arellano. In 2003, Rivera
was indicted in federal court in San Diego on charges of
conspiracy to import and conspiracy to distribute
“The machine will continue functioning,” said Clark,
the human rights activist. “I don't doubt that their
enemies will take advantage of the situation . . . and it
could get more violent.”
Defense lawyer John Kirby, who worked on the Arellano
case before leaving the U.S. Attorney's Office last year,
also predicted chaos.
He disagreed with those who feel Eduardo Arellano would
play a larger role, saying that brother hasn't been active
“I don't think there's anybody left who will get the
same kind of loyalty out of the rest of the organization,”
But Blancornelas, the newspaper editor, said Eduardo
and an Arellano sister who hasn't been named in any U.S.
indictment have been important decision-makers in the
He downplayed Javier's day-to-day involvement.
“He didn't play a key role in the cartel. . . . His was
the role of a playboy, going to the discos, and when
someone annoyed him, he would have them killed,” said
Blancornelas, who stepped down from the paper this year.
However, he said Villareal, who reportedly was arrested
with Arellano this week, was suspected of coordinating the
cartel's violent enforcement operations and its transport
of drugs through Tijuana.
A top Mexican federal prosecutor told the Committee to
Protect Journalists last year that Villareal was one of
the masterminds behind the 2004 killing of Zeta
newspaper editor Francisco Ortiz Franco.
By arresting Javier Arellano themselves, U.S. officials
can be sure they can get him to answer to charges quickly.
“The fact he's coming straight to San Diego is huge,”
said Kirby, the former federal prosecutor. “It's probably
going to be the biggest drug case the city's seen.”
Union-Tribune staff writer Greg Gross, Copley News
Service reporter S. Lynne Walker and The Associated Press
contributed to this report.