A fourth leader of the Arellano Félix Organization falls as Mexican and U.S. law enforcement make unprecedented strides together to crush the cartel.
In the pre-dawn darkness of Aug. 22, an elite team of heavily armed Mexican federal agents surrounded a house in a small town east of the Baja California capital of Mexicali. At a pre-arranged signal, the masked agents burst into the home. Inside, they found their quarry – a long-hunted narco-trafficker under indictment in both the United States and Mexico. The U.S. government had posted a $2 million reward for information leading to his capture.
The suspect and an alleged accomplice were arrested, handcuffed and whisked away to the Mexicali airport. The entire operation, carried out with textbook precision and without a shot fired, was over in a mere three minutes.
In San Diego, jubilant agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration stamped "captured" over their wanted-poster photograph of Gilberto "El Gilillo" Higuera Guerrero, formerly a top lieutenant of the Tijuana-based Arellano Félix drug-trafficking cartel.
Higuera's capture was the fourth major apprehension of an AFO principal in three months. On June 3, a surprise raid on an upscale Tijuana home by another picked team of Mexico's Federal Investigation Agency nabbed AFO lieutenants Efrain "El Efra" Pérez and Jorge "Macumba" Aureliano Félix. On June 23, yet another Tijuana raid by Mexican federal agents led to a wild shootout and the capture of an alleged top AFO enforcer and assassin known as "El Cris."
Clearly, U.S. and Mexican law enforcement have found a winning formula for tracking down and apprehending the top leadership of the Arellano Félix Organization. Once estimated to supply 40 percent of all the cocaine used in the United States, the AFO is now badly battered and struggling to hold onto its drug-smuggling corridors through Baja California and into the United States.
"This is a methodical, surgical approach. This is an unprecedented degree of cooperation from Mexico and an unprecedented degree of success against the AFO," says John S. Fernandes, special agent in charge of the DEA's San Diego Field Division.
In three months, U.S. and Mexican law enforcement, working more closely together than ever before, have apprehended three of the seven top leaders listed on the Drug Enforcement Administration's most-wanted AFO poster.
Additional apprehensions of AFO principals seem likely in the near future.
"Three down and four to go," quipped one federal agent.
Two factors in particular are proving decisive in the string of successful operations against the Tijuana cartel.
First, the Mexican government under President Vicente Fox and Attorney General Rafael Macedo de la Concha is providing levels of cooperation and law enforcement professionalism heretofore unknown in Mexico. Following his inauguration in December 2000, Fox, the first opposition president elected in Mexico in more than 70 years, vowed to crush the murderous Arellano Félix Organization and end its plague of drug trafficking and violence along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Step by step, Fox is proving as good as his word, even if it is predictably taking longer than the impossible six-month deadline he declared almost four years ago.
RamónArellano Félix, the AFO's brutal chief enforcer, was killed in a shootout with Mexican police in Mazatlan in February 2002. Ramón's death dramatically diminished the cartel's fear-induced discipline and terrifying reputation. That proved a decisive break in the long struggle to dismantle Mexico's most violent drug-trafficking cartel.
Benjamán Arellano Félix, Ramón's older brother and the cartel's chief, was apprehended 29 days after Ramónwas killed. Other apprehensions followed, culminating this summer in the capture of four prominent AFO figures in the Tijuana and Mexicali areas.
Fox's attorney general, Macedo, is likewise a key to these successes. Macedo disbanded the corruption-ridden counter-narcotics force he inherited in the Attorney General's Office. In its place, he substituted Mexico's Federal Investigation Agency, known by its Spanish acronym AFI. With U.S. assistance, picked AFI teams were trained and equipped for the highly specialized work of tracking and capturing Mexico's drug-kingpin fugitives.
"Their (AFI's) ability to mobilize quickly to act on our joint intelligence is why we've been able to apprehend these four AFO figures in three months. The mechanism is now in place," notes the DEA's Fernandes.
Obtaining the precise, timely intelligence required to locate and capture AFO leaders is the second decisive factor in the current string of successes against the cartel. No less vital is the ability to share this acutely sensitive intelligence with Mexican officials without the information being leaked to the cartel.
In the pre-Fox era, the AFO's lavish spending on bribery – said at one point to have reached $1 million per week – bought the cartel access to some of the Mexican government's most important law enforcement intelligence. Under previous Mexican administrations, the Tijuana cartel obtained some of this intelligence information from within the Mexican attorney general's own command structure.
The most recent arrests in Mexico of AFO principals were made possible by U.S. intelligence shared, without subsequent leaks, with senior Mexican officials.
Meanwhile, the flow of information on the AFO to U.S. law enforcement has steadily increased. U.S. officials and agents involved in the long struggle against the AFO are unanimous in asserting that RamónArellano Félix's death led to a dramatic unraveling of the cartel's internal discipline. That unraveling process now appears to be accelerating.
"The more successful you are, the more you increase your ability to cultivate informants that are able to further help us in our pursuits, to the point where they (cartel leaders) are totally confused. They have no idea who is informing on whom. Their entire lives are (now) one big rear-view mirror," says Fernandes.
"With our success, we've increased our informant base to the point where, at some point, we'll have Javier thinking that Eduardo (the remaining Arellano brothers believed running the cartel) is informing on him and then we'll get them both," Fernandes says.
Other veterans of the fight against the Tijuana cartel agree.
"There's probably a good possibility that because of where we are, we're going to be in a position to get people like Cris, people that aren't necessarily on the poster but obviously somebody that needs to be apprehended. There are several of those people directly under the brothers and Gus Rivera, and some of those people are there to be had, and they will be had because it's part of the operational game plan. To get where you've got to go, it's a building block process. Those people happen to be part of the building blocks, and they'll be taken care of," explains a veteran law enforcement source with years of experience working to counter the AFO.
Gilberto Higuera's capture did reveal one divergence between U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officials. In a post-capture press release issued in Mexico City, Macedo suggested that Higuera had defected from the AFO and gone to work for the rival drug-trafficking syndicate led by Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada García.
U.S. law enforcement sources agree that Higuera was estranged from the Arellano Félix Organization. These sources report that Higuera had gradually fallen out of favor with the AFO leadership in recent years. When he was caught, Higuera appeared to be in hiding from AFO enforcers out to kill him. But these same sources dispute speculative allegations that Higuera was working for Zambada.
"We have some high-level sources that we trust and we can corroborate their information. The stories out there about him working for Zambada are simply not true," insists a well-placed source in U.S. law enforcement.
"If he was working for Zambada and had their protection, I don't think he would have been living where he was living, pretty much by himself, all alone," the source adds.
"We know for a fact that the Arellanos were out to kill Gilberto and, again, the easiest thing for them to say is that he's working for the enemies (a rival drug cartel)," says the source. Accounts of Higuera's alleged defection to the Zambada syndicate reportedly came from the interrogations of several AFO gunmen captured in Mexico earlier this year. U.S. sources believe that these low-level AFO enforcers were only repeating the misinformation they were given by the Tijuana cartel's leadership to justify AFO efforts to kill Higuera.
If the cartel's hit men were in fact gunning for "El Gilillo," the startled fugitive must have been relieved when the armed men bursting through his door proved to be federal agents and not an AFO enforcement team.
The Bush administration also deserves a major share of the credit for the mounting successes scored against the Tijuana cartel. Through the 1990s, much of official Washington seemed largely oblivious to the mounting menace posed by the Arellano Félix Organization and the flood of drugs it sends across the U.S. border. That apathy is long gone.
Attorney General John Ashcroft came to San Diego last year to personally announce massive new indictments by the Justice Department of the entire AFO hierarchy on drug-trafficking charges of racketeering and conspiracy. John Walters, energetic director of the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy, has visited both San Diego and Tijuana to rally resistance to the cross-border drug trade. The State Department is putting up millions of additional dollars in reward money for information leading to the capture of the Tijuana cartel's leaders. Strong diplomatic pressure from the Bush administration – the White House, Justice and State – stiffens the Fox administration's commitment to the fight against the lawless AFO and Mexico's other drug cartels which smuggle huge quantities of narcotics into the United States.
The Justice Department, acting through the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Diego, is mounting a huge legal effort to obtain extradition to the United States of AFO principals now in custody in Mexico. Gilberto Higuera Guerrero will now be added to the extradition list.
All of which puts a smile on the DEA's increasingly optimistic John Fernandes. "We'll get Eduardo and Javier," he predicts. If he's right, the AFO's days are numbered.