Reprinted with permission of Los Angeles Magazine.
Copyright 1997. All rights reserved.
After a bloody war that has turned Tijuana into a free-fire zone, the Arellano Brothers are the biggest cocaine smugglers in the United States. They've got most of Baja's cops in their pocket and some of Mexico's wealthiest children doing their killing. Welcome to the family business.
The shooting started as soon as Commander Alejandro Castaneda Andrade and his six special federal agents forced the stolen red Suburban with California license plates to pull over. The moment the federales got out of their two cars, guns at the ready, the Suburban's tinted windows blew out and Castaneda and his men were sprayed with automatic -weapons' fire from inside. They frantically dove for cover and returned the fire. The shoot-out lasted several minutes; the gunmen-pinned down in a brutal crossfire-finally surrendered to the federales.
As soon as he had his prisoners handcuffed, faces pressed into the asphalt, Castaneda realized that several of them were Baja state police officers moonlighting as bodyguards for the notorious Arellano Felix brothers, the biggest drug lords in northwest Mexico.
Finding cops working for drug dealers didn't surprise Castaneda. He knew the world, and the world knew him. He was that rarest of breeds in Mexico, an honest cop--so honest, in fact, that his everyday whereabouts were kept secret lest he be set up by fellow officers in the pocket of the cartels. Castaneda was the Dirty Harry of Baja California, and he was about to make the arrest of his career.
Lying before him, handcuffed and bleeding, was Javier Arellano, one of the most wanted men in all of Mexico. Javier and his two brothers ran one of the biggest drug smuggling operations in the world, and they had been waging a deadly war with any cops brave enough to confront them. That year, they had already killed 24 law enforcement agents. For Castaneda, for Mexico, this was a perfect moment.
Until another Suburban came roaring out of the darkness.
Its doors flew open, and a second swarm of corrupt Baja policemen-AK-47s blazing-rushed toward Castaneda and his prisoners. This time there was nowhere to hide. Castaneda was hit twice in the back and fell to the ground. As he lay dying, the last thing he saw was young Javier Arellano being loaded into the back of the white Suburban and whisked away.
This wild reversal of fortune took place in the middle of downtown Tijuana on March 3, 1994. The next day, Mexico's attorney general again declared the Arellano brothers "the most hunted" fugitives in the nation, with a $5 million bounty on their heads. And while the attorney general periodically announces that federal agents are closing in on them, Javier and his two brothers are regularly spotted in San Diego--brunching in Coronado or shopping for suits in La Jolla. There have also been the occasional sightings in Tijuana--at restaurants and nightclubs, accompanied by their Baja state police bodyguards.
"No one accepts the idea that these three men cannot be found," says Jose Luis Perez Canchola, vice president of the Mexican Academy of Human Rights. "Especially with the capability of the Mexican government's nationwide network of domestic espionage. This search is science fiction."
The Arellano cartel smuggles about 20 percent of the Colombian cocaine entering the United States--plus a huge chunk of the heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine. They operate under the protection--and often with the active participation-of state and federal police. Mexico's drug cartels have corrupted the nations' law enforcement so completely that the government cannot seem to muster--or keep alive--enough honest agents to bring the Arellano brothers down. Last August, the attorney general announced that he suspected up to 80 percent of the Mexican police were dirty and fired more than 1,000 men. And any cops the Arellano can't buy, they kill. Their signature touch is to torch the corpses beyond recognition.
It began about the year 3 B.C.C. (Before Colombian Cocaine). When the Arellano brothers first came to Tijuana in the mid '80s, bribes were as widespread as death and paid more religiously than taxes. Mordida ("the bite") was paid regularly to police and politicians and even the guy who worked on your phones. "The Arellanos started working here simply because they could [buy] the authorities," says Victor Clark Alfaro, a longtime local human-rights activist. "But there was no violence then. The cartels and the corrupted kept a sane distance. The Arellanos were here openly. They went to the best restaurants, to the country club."
The brothers were reportedly born into an old and powerful smuggling family in the state of Sinaloa, a haven for drug traffickers since the '50s. Their age difference spans 21 years, though information about them is so sketchy that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency is not even sure of their exact birth dates. The eldest brother, Francisco, 48, was charged with selling eighteen ounces of cocaine in San Diego in 1980. He fled to Mexico, where he spent most of his time in Mazatlan, a coastal resort 1,000 miles south of Tijuana. There he was a developer and owned a discotheque until 1993, when he was imprisoned on arms charges.
His three younger brothers are routinely described in the Mexican press as "rich, ruthless and movie-star handsome." The least visible brother, but clearly the man in charge, is the next eldest, Benjamin, born in 1952 or '53. His DEA file lists at least six aliases and nicknames, including "el Min" and "the Millionaire," and the photograph police pass out with his WANTED poster shows him proudly watching a priest baptize his infant son.
The next eldest brother, Ramon, who authorities estimate is 33, is the "wild one"--fast motorcycles, flashy clothes, a ponytail and a disco-strobe tan. He was a king of the Tijuana party circuit and, paradoxically, the Catholic baptism circuit, both of which he used to infiltrate Tijuana's circle of social elites. One woman told the Los Angeles Times: "Ramon became the godfather of a number of children in Tijuana. Let's face it, it was often for the money. He would pay for a big baptism." The youngest, Javier, 27, has scars from two bullet wounds--reminders of the five assassination attempts he has survived. He drives a very white Mercedes with very dark windows, uses two aliases and is said to defer to his brothers.
Benjamin, Ramon and Javier quickly put down roots in Tijuana. They bought homes in one of its wealthy hillside communities and invested in legitimate businesses. They were obviously but tastefully rich. "They behaved like successful citizens," recalls Ernesto Ruffo Appel, governor of Baja California from 1989 to 1995. "They would turn up with their bodyguards in discos and nice neighborhoods. People said they were involved with narcotics traffickers, but no one really knew."
But everyone knew, of course. The brothers were admired by the rich young Mexicans they partied with in the members-only discos. They were a refreshing change from the usual drug lords--barrio mutts who flashed and faded like shooting stars. The Arellanos were cutthroat with class, not prison tattoos.
As they expanded their drug empire, they began to enlist the untested kids from their nightclubbing clique, who became known in press reports and on police blotters as "the Juniors." Within a few years, about twenty of these dilettante gangsters surrounded the Arellanos as key lieutenants. To them, drug running provided devilishly good sport and plenty of "F-Daddy" money. Arrest was of no concern--their family crests outranked the tinny badges of Baja's BRIBE ME PLEASE constabulary.
"The Juniors weren't so much dedicated to drug trafficking as to the pleasure of being able to able to do so," wrote the editor of Zeta, a respected Tijuana weekly. "by virtue of their wealth and power and association with the Arellanos, the Juniors became untouchables murdering whomever they wished.
Some had been born in San Diego's finest private hospitals and educated in its most exclusive Catholic schools. Many held both U.S. and Mexican citizenship. The Juniors passed through the San Ysidro checkpoint outside Tijuana so often that they were on a first-name basis with American border inspectors. The Arellanos paid their Juniors up to $15,000 for an afternoon of smuggling.
The amount of cocaine the Arellano brothers smuggled into El Norte in the 1980s was piddling in comparison with what the Colombian cartels smuggled across the Caribbean into south Florida. But in the mid '80s, the U.S. government began a relentless, sophisticated attack on the seagoing routes. And the Colombians started looking for other methods of delivery.
Arriving by ship and converted jetliners, tons of Colombian cocaine were unloaded in central and southern Mexico. Trucks, trains, and small planes then ferried the drugs north to be distributed to smuggling rings along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexican border.
The busiest border crossing in North America--37,000 vehicles a day--is the San Ysidro checkpoint. For years, the Arellano brothers had prudently but unwillingly shared this turf with Mexico's most powerful trafficker: Joaquin "el Chapo" Guzman of Sinaloa. Guzman was a master strategist who bought and sold narcotics on a global scale. When the Colombians chose Tijuana as the main smuggling route for their cocaine, few doubted that Guzman would crush the Arellanos and seize control of the cocaine pipeline. Guzman had already stocked and fortified safe houses throughout Tijuana with grenade launchers, automatic weapons, night-vision scopes, money vaults and hidden rooms. So certain was Guzman of victory that he had also spent millions of dollars digging a 1,500-foot tunnel under the border near Tijuana airport.
The Arellano brothers invested their money in bullets. Their operatives secretly recruited San Diego gang members, who were then trained as assassins. Most were from the Calle Treinta (30th Street) Gang of Logan Heights, one of San Diego's oldest barrio neighborhoods. They had street names like Spooky, Puma and Popeye and were described by local police as "the worst...most dangerous" gangbangers in the city. A police lieutenant told a reporter that, when it came to protecting their turf, they are "not afraid to pull a trigger. They are shooters." The Arellano brothers paid their newly trained mercenaries a weekly retainer of $1,000, plus several thousand more for actual missions. Their big payday was the $30,000 bounty on Guzman.
U.S. agents believe a Calle Treinta assassination squad led one of the first strikes against Guzman in early 1992. Six of Guzman's top lieutenants were tortured, shot in the back of the head and then dumped along the side of a Tijuana highway, still bound and gagged. This massacre was a blow against Guzman's second in command. Hector Luis Palma Salazar, who reportedly had betrayed the brothers' drug-lord mentor. The Arellano cartel next enlisted a Venezuelan to seduce Palma's wife and spirit her to San Francisco, where she withdrew $7 million from her bank account. The Venezuelan then murdered her and sent her head to Palma in a box. He reportedly finished the job by Palma's toddler son and daughter off a bridge.
Guzman retaliated that November at a Puerto Vallarta discotheque where Javier and Ramon were partying with their San Diego mercenaries and some of the Mexican state police on the Arellano payroll. Before attacking, Guzman ordered the fourteen-member Puerto Vallarta federal police contingent--which was on his payroll--to leave town that night. Then about 40 of Guzman's men, disguised as police, stormed the discotheque firing machine guns. Six people were killed, but the brothers reportedly escaped by crawling through an air-conditioning duct in the bathroom.
This gun battle shocked the nation. Sporadic back-alley gang violence was nothing new, but mass executions and police complicity in commando raids on a neighborhood nightclub were unheard of.
What happened next was unimaginable. Authorities say that, in late May 1993, the Arellanos learned that Guzman was in Guadalajara, so one or more brothers flew in with at least eight of their Calle Treinta mercenaries. When they spotted Guzman's entourage at the airport, they opened fire and a wild gun battle erupted.
One of the innocent bystanders caught in the cross fire was Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo of Guadalajara. Andrea A. Reding, a writer on Mexican politics, testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations about this incident. In a recent interview, he detailed what happened next: "One of the Arellano's gunmen opened the cardinal's door," Reding says. "The cardinal was dressed in black and was wearing a prominent pectoral cross. The gunmen opened fire with an automatic weapon at a range of three feet. The cardinal was riddled with fourteen slugs." Also killed were the cardinal's driver and five others.
In a country that is 80 percent Catholic, the hows and whys of Cardinal Posada's murder have become Mexico's equivalent of this country's obsession with the murder of JFK. "The Mexican government," Reding continued, "claims the Arellano gunman mistook the cardinal for Guzman. The facts suggest otherwise...though the motive...remains unclear."
Undisputed is the fact that federal police covered the escape of the Arellano assassins as they fled from the shoot-out. Uncontested is the fact that Aeromexico Flight 110 to Tijuana was delayed more than twenty minutes to allow them to board.
Unanswered is the question of why the Mexican government, with two hours to act before Flight 110 landed, did nothing. Mexican police met the assassins in Tijuana, but they were there as bodyguards and drivers on the Arellano payroll.
The next day, Mexican federales swooped down on the Arellano gang and arrested eight suspects. Those arrested were mostly Calle Treinta mercenaries. The government declared the Arellano brothers the "most wanted criminals in Mexico" and offered a $5 million reward for information leading to their arrest.
Guzman, who had escaped from the Guadalajara airport in a taxi, drove to Mexico City and then fled into the mountains of neighboring Guatemala. Within two weeks, Attorney General Jorge Carpizo MacGregor announced that he had been arrested in Guatemala. As Guzman was paraded before reporters, Carpizo proclaimed that Mexico "has shown its ability to respond to the shameful events that have moved the entire nation...to halt impunity and lack of public safety." Begrudgingly, he allowed: "The problem is that the traffickers have managed to buy the police."
A more cynical analysis of Guzman's arrest was put forth by Reding during his Senate testimony two years later: "The government's bold venture into Guatemalan territory [to capture Guzman was] an arrest that in effect turned the government into an enforcer for the Arellanos."
The Arellano Brothers did not emerge from this victory unscathed. Devout Catholics with extraordinarily close ties to the church, they were said to be tormented by the holy wrath engulfing them. Over the years, the Arellano brothers had developed a "great friendship" with the Tijuana diocese that "was always public," according to a November 1995 report in La Jornada, a leading Mexico City daily.
"Frequently by the Arellano's side," La Jornada reported, were Bishop Emilio Berlie Belaunzaran and Father Gerardo Montano Rubio of Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe Church in Tijuana. Even as fugitive drug traffickers, "the Arellano brothers continued to count on the moral endorsement of Bishop Berlie and Father Montano, who never concealed their public friendship.
Six months after the cardinal's murder--and with the intervention of the Tijuana diocese--both Benjamin and Ramon made pilgrimages to Mexico City declaring their innocence to papal nuncio Girolamo Prigione, the pope's ambassador to Mexico. Prigione received Ramon at his official residence in December 1993 and Benjamin a month later; he reportedly absolved them both of the cardinal's murder, though Prigione denies it. In fact, Reding told the Senate committee that President Carlos Salinas de Gortari knew that Benjamin was meeting with Prigiones but "did nothing to apprehend the fugitive."
One possible explanation for the president's inaction came up shortly after Salinas left office--and the country. The Autonomous National University of Mexico estimated that during his six-year presidency (1988-94), the drug cartels paid up to $500 million a year in bribes--allegedly to everyone from traffic cops to a member of Salinas's immediate family.
Salinas has never been officially linked to drug traffickers, but his brother, Raul, is in a Mexican prison facing murder charges and under investigation for drug money laundering. He's denied it under oath. And Salinas's brother-in-law, Mario Ruiz Massieu, is accused of orchestrating a high-scale bribery scheme that determined the assignment of corrupt federal prosecutors to drug-smuggling cases. Massieu is currently under house arrest in New Jersey fighting extradition.
Salinas's hand-picked successor, Luis Donaldo Colosio, launched his campaign for the presidency in January 1994, vowing to crack down on the drug cartels. He refused to campaign with corrupt regional politicians and also broke tradition by refusing to meet with emissaries from the cartels. The cartels apparently got the message.
Colosio was assassinated on March 23, 1994, just three months into the campaign. he was shot twice at a rally in Tijuana, the Arellano brothers' power base. Five weeks later, Tijuana's police chief, Jose Federico Benitez Lopez, was gunned down. Benitez, known as an honest cop, had confided to associates ten days before his assassination that he had turned down a $100,000 bribe from a top Arellano lieutenant. Their meeting had ended with a grim exchange, with each man saying: "Do what you have to do."
Benitez's replacement, Victor Vazquez Fernandez, quickly announced : "I prefer to secure the safety of Tijuana families than to search for narco-traffickers."
In January 1995, newly elected president Ernesto Zedillo proclaimed drugs the preeminent danger to Mexico's security. And his newly appointed general, Antonio Lozano Garcia, announced he had been given free rein to arrest public enemies one, two and three: Benjamin, Ramon and Javier Arellano.
The unspoken caveat was that Zedillo and Lozano had determined that much of the nation's law enforcement was in the pocket of one--or more--of the cartels. And the most thoroughly corrupted region was Baja, heart of the Arellano empire. State and federal police "are practically left at the service" of the Arellano brothers, La Jornada wrote in November 1995.
Former Baja governor Ruffo offered reporters this explanation for the blatant acquiescence of his state police: "The Arellano brothers' organization grew and was strengthened through the deliberate act of the federal government." Ruffo, with some justification, argued that the federal government is ultimately responsible for drug prosecutions. He even offered an explanation to the Associated Press for the failure of the fresh-faced agents and prosecutors Lozano had been dispatching by the planeload from Mexico City to Baja: "I think they arrive good people," Ruffo said. "But they arrive to a black atmosphere of corruption. They accept it, or they die at the hands of other agents...or narco-traffickers."
After eighteen months of floundering, Lozano readied his forces to crush the Arellano brothers in August 1996. He had just fired some 1,000 federal agents nationwide, including half the 120-member Baja contingent. And he had launched two federal dragnets against the brothers called Operations Cancer and Scorpion. To lead the operations, Lozano hand-picked Ernesto Ibarra Santes, an agent said to be fearless and honest. Ibarra arrived in Baja with 55 federal agents he had trained himself.
With refreshing but unquestionable bravado, Ibarra publicly named prominent Tijuana citizens he considered to be cohorts of the Arellano brothers and vowed to arrest them. The Los Angeles Times reported that Ibarra believed "the Arellanos had won their Tijuana turf wars and had become the czars of the most powerful drug empire on the Pacific corridor, and possibly all of Mexico. The millions they earned...are invested in a business empire with 150 properties in Tijuana alone--security houses, safe houses, drug warehouses, hotels, pharmacies, nightspots--which employ 500 people, from foot soldiers and money launderers to front men."
Ibarra was assassinated September 14--just 28 days after his arrival. He and two bodyguards were gunned down on a trip to Mexico City--set up by someone within his organization. Ibarra's 55 agents were immediately placed under heavy guard and flown out of Tijuana.
A week later, another of Lozano's key commanders, Jorge Garcia Vargas, head of the National Institute for Combatting Drugs in Tijuana, boasted that his team was closing in on at least fifteen Tijuana businesses for "narco-trafficking and money-laundering activities...tied to the Arellano organization." A few days later, Garcia and five of his agents were tortured, strangled and then stuffed into the trunks of cars parked in an upscale suburb of Mexico City.
By October 1996, Lozano was clearly losing his war against the Arellano brothers. All told, at least 44 government agents had been killed. The Arellano organization had also suffered. Ten of their Juniors had been murdered, and another seven were in jail.
"We are closer to...efficiently combating and disbanding" the Arellano gang, Lozano yet again predicted last October. Not close enough, apparently Zedillo fired Lozano's replacement, Jorge Madrazo Cuellar, chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, to again clean house. In a dramatic and historic move, Madrazo immediately appointed an army general, Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, to take over as Mexico's drug czar.
The general--and the army's squeaky-clean reputation--lasted about two months. Gutierrez was arrested in late February on suspicion of taking money from the Arellano brothers' rival, drug lord Amado Carillo Fuentes of the Gulf Cartel.
What is Mexico's next move in this war? Unconditional surrender? "As for the
Arellano brothers," says Carolina Nava, the attorney general's director of
foreign press, "I can't tell you anything." But an American who has studied the
Mexican underworld for two decades believes that the Arellano brothers have
nothing to fear. Peter Lupsha, a professor emeritus at the University of New
Mexico, says, "The Arellano brothers won't be caught anytime soon. They are not
regional players, and they have a track right to the top of the heavily
criminal elite in power. What's going on in Mexico today is beyond fiction."
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