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.


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 night.

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 Marco Fernández.

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 enforcement.


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 January.

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 possess cocaine.



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 group's finances.

Other brothers and sisters are believed to have roles in the drug group, but not as much is known about them.

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 in 2003.

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 drug-trafficking issues.

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, prosecutors said.

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 groups.

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 controlled substances.

“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 for years.

“I don't think there's anybody left who will get the same kind of loyalty out of the rest of the organization,” Kirby said.

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 cartel.

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.