San Diego — U.S. law enforcement called it Operation Shadow Game. Its target was Javier Arellano Felix, the latest boss of the ultra-violent, Tijuana-based drug cartel that bears his family’s name, the Arellano Felix Organization.
The hunters were a task force of federal agents led by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. government’s front-line agency in the war against the multibillion-dollar trafficking in illegal narcotics smuggled into the United States.
For two decades, the AFO has controlled the Tijuana Plaza, the lucrative drug smuggling corridor across the southwest U.S.-Mexico border. Through this corridor flowed hundreds of tons of cocaine and marijuana bought by the AFO and smuggled — in everything from duffel bags and hidden car panels to tractor-trailer rigs — across the border for resale in the U.S. market.
The profits reaped by the AFO, aka the Tijuana cartel, were enormous; billions of dollars over the years. The money paid for luxurious lifestyles for the expansive Arellano Felix clan, for disguised investments all over Mexico, the United States and elsewhere, and to sustain a drug trafficking empire that stretched from Tijuana north into the United States and south as far as Colombia, source of 80 percent of the world’s cocaine.
To protect this illicit trade, the Arellano Felix Organization spent huge sums every month bribing Mexican law enforcement, government officials and even the Mexican military to look the other way. Those who couldn’t be bought were often killed by AFO enforcement teams; heavily armed assassins who drove around Tijuana and other Baja California cities in convoys of armored SUVs equipped with sophisticated radios and other communications gear tuned to Mexican police frequencies.
But despite their wealth, bribes, murders and fearsome reputation, the AFO’s fortunes began declining in 2000. In March 2000, Mexican counternarcotics police apprehended the AFO’s reputed financial mastermind, Jesus "Chuy Labra" Labra Aviles in Tijuana. In May 2000, Mexican federal police captured the AFO’s operations director, Ismael "El Mayel" Higuera Guerrero, at a villa near Ensenada.
Then, in 2002, the roof fell in on the AFO. On Feb. 10, the cartel’s feared enforcer and by all accounts its most sadistic killer, Ramon Arellano Felix, was killed in a shootout with Mexican police in the resort coastal city of Mazatlan. One day short of a month later, Benjamin Arellano Felix, the cartel’s shrewd CEO, was captured while hiding in an upscale suburb of the city of Puebla in Mexico’s interior by an elite para-military team of Mexican federal police.
With Benjamin in custody, Ramon dead and a third brother, Francisco, in prison in Mexico since 1993, leadership of Mexico’s most violent drug trafficking cartel fell to Javier, then 33 years old.
U.S. law enforcement’s concerted hunt for Javier Arellano Felix began in the summer of 2003. Previously sealed indictments, returned by a federal grand jury for the Southern District of California, were unsealed and announced by the U.S. attorney in San Diego against the top leadership of the AFO, including Javier Arellano Felix. The U.S. State Department offered a $5 million reward for information leading to Javier’s apprehension.
Federal charges against Javier and the other AFO principals included drug trafficking, conspiracy, racketeering and money laundering.
The AFO’s new boss was also wanted on drug trafficking charges in Mexico, where he was regarded as one of that nation’s most sought-after fugitives.
By June 2004, U.S. law enforcement’s search for Javier was on in earnest. Reportedly, he narrowly escaped capture by Mexican authorities in Tijuana on several occasions.
To protect the vital secrets of intelligence sources and methods, U.S. law enforcement officials won’t discuss the specifics of how Javier and his top AFO associates were tracked in Mexico. But at some point, a link was discovered between Javier and a sport fishing boat. A carefully crafted plan emerged to apprehend him if and when he ventured out on the boat, later identified as the Dock Holiday, a vessel registered in the United States.
If caught in international waters, Javier could be arrested by the U.S. Coast Guard acting on the Justice Department warrant issued for his arrest in 2003.
Now the trap was set. Operation Shadow Game was a waiting game.
Finally, on Monday morning, Aug. 14, Javier Arellano Felix made the mistake that would cost him his freedom. The Dock Holiday was in international waters some 15 miles off the Baja port city of Cabo San Lucas. The DEA pulled the trigger, formally requesting that the Coast Guard interdict and board the Dock Holiday.
A Coast Guard boarding team, including members of a specially trained counterterrorism, counternarcotics unit, promptly deployed from a pre-positioned Coast Guard patrol ship, the Monsoon.
In minutes, the Coast Guard team boarded the 43-foot Doc Holiday. At first, Javier gave the alias under which he was traveling. The Coast Guard team photographed Javier and others aboard the Dock Holiday and relayed the photographs to the DEA. When it became apparent that his true identity had been discovered, Javier admitted who he was.
The eight adults and three children aboard the fishing boat included two other reputed AFO members, Arturo Villareal Heredia and Marco Fernandez. Law enforcement sources describe Villareal as an operations lieutenant to Javier. Mexico’s deputy attorney general for organized crime, Jose Luis Santiago Vasconselos, calls Villareal and Fernandez "assassins."
For reasons of operational security, Javier’s apprehension was kept secret while the Coast Guard was transporting him up the Baja coast toward San Diego. The DEA, Justice Department and the Coast Guard announced their prize bust from Washington 48 hours after the event.
Javier was arraigned in U.S. District Court in San Diego on the 2003 indictment Thursday. Additional charges based on his activities since 2003 may be filed later. The public defender lawyer temporarily assigned to represent him entered a plea of not guilty. If convicted on all 10 counts, he could be sent to prison for life or receive a death sentence.
Either way, Javier Arellano Felix, now 37, is unlikely ever again to experience a single day as a free man.
Call it a down payment payback for decades of AFO crimes.
U.S. law enforcement sources estimate that the Arellano Felix Organization is responsible for many hundreds (500 or more is a figure one hears) of murders, most in Mexico but some in the United States.
Among these, certain killings stand out as especially heinous.
A bungled AFO attempt to assassinate a rival drug trafficker at the Guadalajara, Mexico, airport in 1993 instead killed Mexico’s Roman Catholic cardinal, Juan Jesus Posdas Ocampo. The cardinal was riddled with bullets fired by AFO gunmen who mistook his car for that of their drug-trafficking rival.
In 1998, an AFO enforcement team, reportedly high on cocaine and alcohol, slaughtered 19 members of three families, including five women and seven children, at a rural compound in El Sauzal, south of Ensenada, Mexico. The massacre was said to be retaliation for an unpaid drug trafficking debt owed to the AFO by the patriarch of one of the victim families.
In 2000, the AFO kidnapped a three-member team of counternarcotics investigators working in Tijuana for the Mexican attorney general’s office. The three men were savagely tortured. Their arms and legs were broken. Then they were killed by having their heads crushed flat in an industrial press.
Throughout this two-decade reign of terror, the AFO has acted as a criminal state within a state, defying both Mexico and the United States to stop its drug trafficking and its murderous mayhem.
Now, finally, the AFO’s days atop the hierarchy of Mexico’s drug cartels may be numbered. With Benjamin and Francisco in prison in Mexico, Ramon dead and Javier facing at least a life sentence in the United States, there may be no one left of sufficient stature to take their place.
Eduardo Arellano Felix, the remaining Arellano brother still at large, is described as a paranoid recluse. He, too, has a $5 million State Department bounty on his head for information leading to his apprehension. It’s widely believed that he is not up to the job of running a multibillion-dollar drug cartel.
Other AFO lieutenants, notably the cunning Gustavo Rivera Martinez (aka "Gus Rivera," or "Chuck"), may try to seize control, or ally the Arellano’s battered organization with another major Mexican cartel.
"It’s unlikely that there is a credible succession," says John Fernandes, special agent in charge of the DEA’s San Diego Field Division.
Fernandes describes Javier Arellano Felix as a "top gun of drug trafficking" and his apprehension as "historic."
Michael Braun, the DEA’s assistant operations director, describes Javier as "the head of the (AFO) snake."
Meanwhile, the U.S. government continues to seek the extradition from Mexico of Benjamin Arellano Felix and the other imprisoned AFO principals wanted for trial in the United States.
At long last, the lamentable saga of the Arellano Felix Organization may be drawing toward a long-awaited, if probably bloody, denouement. A criminal syndicate that once supplied an estimated 40 percent of all cocaine consumed in the United States has now seen all but one of the Arellano brothers taken down by Mexican or U.S. law enforcement.
Most of those who worked so long and so diligently, and sometimes at great personal risk, to accomplish this hard-won victory must remain unidentified for reasons of security. Yet, it’s no exaggeration to say that two nations are in their debt.