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Sunday, April 18, 2010

He's Called the Face of Ciudad Juarez Terror

Authorities say Eduardo Ravelo has helped turn the border city into Mexico's homicide capital. Now investigators think he played a role in the U.S. Consulate slayings.

Los Angeles Times
El Paso, Texas - Authorities think he had his fingertips altered to disguise his prints and plastic surgery to mask his face. Except for his dark eyes, federal officials doubt he looks anything like his 12-year-old FBI most wanted photo -- round face, trim mustache and a scar along his cheek.

Eduardo Ravelo, known on the street as "Tablas," or "lumber," for his ability to crush, allegedly rules thousands of acolytes in an operation that authorities say specializes in killing, conspiracy, extortion, drug trafficking and money laundering.

Though he is thought to live across the border in Ciudad Juarez and regularly cross into Texas, he has eluded arrest.

"He's a butterfly, a moth," said Samantha Mikeska, an FBI special agent leading the hunt for Ravelo. "He takes care of his people and that keeps him under the radar."

Ravelo, 42, is said by law enforcement to have been a major factor in turning Ciudad Juarez into the homicide capital of Mexico, with nearly 5,000 people slain there since 2008 and more than 600 this year. He is thought to be responsible for dozens of the slayings.

Now he has risen to new prominence as authorities in the U.S. and Mexico investigate whether he was behind the recent drive-by killings of three people associated with the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez.

Arthur H. Redelfs, a detention officer at the El Paso County Jail, and his wife, Lesley A. Enriquez, a consulate employee, were ambushed and killed March 13 as they drove home from a birthday party. A third person, who was married to a consulate employee, was apparently killed by mistake as he drove from the same party in a vehicle similar to the Redelfs'.

The U.S. is determined to find Ravelo, and his wanted picture is plastered on billboards around El Paso. But in Mexico, he appears to have protection.

Robert Beltran, a former gang member who runs a private protection firm on both sides of the border, said the Mexican government, with scores of army troops stationed at the border, should be able to catch Ravelo

"Anybody can be found in Juarez," Beltran said. "If the government puts enough pressure, or the right price is put out, someone will give him up."

But Mikeska, the FBI agent, said Ravelo was no easy target. "He is at the highest rank you can get," she said. "He has a lot of pull, a lot of juice. He has done a lot to survive."

The violence is spilling across the Rio Grande, said Jesse Tovar of the El Paso County Sheriff's Office.

He pointed to the killing of Sergio Saucedo, 30, in September because of a Mexican drug deal, allegedly involving Ravelo, that went bad. Saucedo was kidnapped from his home in El Paso in front of his family and a school bus filled with children. His body was dumped on a street in Ciudad Juarez with his arms severed and placed on top of a cardboard sign on his chest.

In El Paso, Ravelo's gang is called Barrio Aztecas. It started small, evolving from the so-called Mexican Mafia of inmates in Texas prisons. Authorities said its initial aim in the late 1990s was street robberies to collect funds for the prisoners' commissary accounts.

Today, authorities say there are 2,000 or more hard-core Barrio Aztecas roaming El Paso, a city of 600,000 beset by drug trafficking and illegal immigrant smuggling. In Ciudad Juarez, Ravelo's gang is known simply as the Aztecas. Its numbers are difficult to count but are probably three times those in El Paso. Maybe more.

Both gangs largely work as one outfit, investigators said, primarily moving drugs from the Mexican side into the U.S. Officials said members from both sides, under Ravelo's eye, serve as hit men for the larger Juarez cartel and its Vicente Carrillo Fuentes drug trafficking operation that claims this part of the border region as its turf.

Authorities said Ravelo, who was born in Mexico but has permanent resident status in the U.S., rules the gangs with a firm hand. They said sicarios, or hired killers, are easy to find; he pays them less than 500 pesos, or $40, a week. Gang members who sell heroin for him and then get hooked on the drug are killed. When drug loads turn up missing in El Paso, suspects are kidnapped and taken to Ciudad Juarez. Some are shot; some are tortured and then shot. Some are beheaded.

But it is not always about drugs. Authorities think retaliation and intimidation were the motives behind the consulate shootings. Their operating theory is that Redelfs was the intended target because Ravelo and other gang leaders thought the detention officer was too tough on gang members in the El Paso County Jail.

The violence did not begin with the consulate ambush; it likely will not end there. Last week, Azteca members in Ciudad Juarez sent an e-mail to some residents warning them to expect more violence in the next three or four months.

"People from Juarez," the e-mail said, "get ready because the problem comes hard, the murders are coming heavy and hard. And don't cry with your blankets because nobody cares about you."

Authorities said Ravelo assumed leadership after a series of killings along the border eight years ago. To get to the top, they said, Ravelo betrayed his predecessor, repeatedly stabbing him and then shooting him in the neck.

His ascent was helped, authorities said, by the 2008 arrests in El Paso of six Barrio Azteca leaders, all of whom were handed sentences of life in prison. Ravelo was indicted with the others in the sweeping federal racketeering case. In all, 26 gang members were convicted or pleaded guilty, except for Ravelo, who was never caught.

Authorities said he has slipped undetected between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, sometimes coming with bodyguards and an armored truck to recruit hit men or simply to visit family members on the U.S. side.

For the most part, however, authorities say Ravelo lies low, living modestly with his common-law wife and their children in the Ciudad Juarez hillsides. Investigators think his base of operations is a tattoo parlor, though they said he rarely frequented the shop now, especially after the consulate shootings.

U.S. authorities have no jurisdiction in Mexico, and must rely on officials there to find and arrest him.

"He knows he is looking at life in prison with no parole in this country," said Mikeska of the FBI. "He's not a dumb man. And he's not the kind of person who would come in and surrender. Instead he's saying, 'Come get me.' "

Carmen Coutino, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent in El Paso, said the agency recently ran a three-day operation with more than 200 federal agents, arresting 54 gang members.

Ravelo's gang threatened to retaliate against El Paso police if it continued.

"The consulate shootings, that's one of the reasons we did this," Coutino said. "There was a lot of intelligence-gathering, a lot of new leads. We're trying to find out what else we don't know."

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