San Diego — Mexico and the United States, working together, are steadily dismantling the murderous Tijuana drug cartel, the infamous Arellano Felix Organization. Once among the most powerful and feared criminal syndicates in Mexico, the AFO is now a shambles. Its top leaders are dead or in custody. Most if not all of the AFO leaders now behind bars face trial in the United States, where bribery cannot buy the criminal justice system and intimidation doesn’t work.
Mexico’s extradition of 11 accused narco-traffickers to the United States a week ago wielded the weapon the cartel leaders fear most. If convicted, they will spend the rest of their lives locked away in maximum security federal prisons. The favors and preferential treatment, the illicit opportunities to continue running their drug empires, even the possibility of escape or early release that their money might buy in Mexico won’t be available in the U.S. prison system.
Here, the capos of Mexico’s drug mafias will have 50 years or more to sit in their cells reflecting on the untold numbers of murders they ordered, the horrendous torture they routinely sanctioned and the millions of lives blighted or destroyed by their drugs. Under the terms of these extraditions, U.S. authorities must respect Mexico’s prohibition on extradition of criminal suspects who would face sentences of death or explicitly stated life terms. Prison sentences of 50 or 60 years would substitute nicely for the latter.
Mexico’s extraditions — which included eight drug kingpins, among them two top AFO lieutenants and an AFO assassin, plus the former head of the Gulf cartel – sent the cartels another jarring signal. Mexico’s new president, Felipe Calderon, is more determined than any past Mexican president to break the drug mafias that threaten to turn Mexico into a narco state. After just seven weeks in office, Calderon did what no other Mexican president has done — delivered Mexican drug traffickers en masse to the United States for trial.
The pending defeat of the AFO, implicit in these extraditions and the recent capture by U.S. authorities of AFO leader Javier Arellano Felix, sends a message of hope that Mexico desperately needs. To wit, that the rule of law can yet prevail over the narco-trafficking syndicates that have made Mexico synonymous with drug-war killings (more than 2,000 last year) and massive, systemic corruption of Mexico’s police and government at the local, state and federal levels.
For the United States, law enforcement’s cumulative defeat of the AFO sends a signal hardly less welcome.
Mexico has long been the source or transit country for most of the illicit narcotics on America’s streets: cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine and heroin. While the plague of smuggled narcotics won’t end so long as a lucrative market exists in the United States, defeating Mexico’s cartels is nonetheless vital for both countries.
The drug cartels have turned border cities such as Tijuana and Cuidad Juarez into lawless killing grounds. The resulting epidemic of deadly mayhem is a threat on both sides of the border. Over time, the cartels also became stunningly efficient at the mass export of drugs to the United States — quantities of narcotics measured not by the kilo or the ton but by hundreds of tons. In turn, the billions of dollars in illicit drug-trade profits made corruption a veritable underground industry in Mexico.
For reasons of economics, geopolitics, national security and immigration, it is a paramount American interest that Mexico’s historic democratization and economic modernization succeed. The drug cartels pose a massive threat to the rule of law that must underpin these reforms.
So, the extradition of AFO figures Ismael Higuera Guerrero, his younger brother Gilberto Higuera Guerrero, and Jose Alberto Marquez Esqueda and their delivery to San Diego to face federal charges represent much more than merely a criminal justice matter.
Ismael Higuera, aka "El Mayel," was the AFO’s top lieutenant and director of operations, according to federal indictments, until his capture in Ensenada in 2000 by an elite force of Mexican para-military police. Younger brother Gilberto faces federal charges of running the AFO’s Mexicali operations and using kidnapping, torture and murder to protect his drug smuggling. Jose Alberto Marquez, aka "Bat," is an accused drug trafficker and AFO enforcer.
The Higuera brothers and Marquez will join Javier Arellano Felix, the most recent AFO head until his capture in international waters off Baja California last August by the U.S. Coast Guard, in line for trial in federal court here. Francisco Arellano Felix, the oldest of the Arellano brothers but only a peripheral figure in the cartel, also faces trial on a 1980 drug charge. Francisco was extradited by Mexico in 2006 after serving a dozen years in prison in Mexico.
The U.S. Justice Department is formally requesting the extradition of eight other AFO leaders in custody in Mexico, including the cartel’s longtime leader Benjamin Arellano Felix, who was captured in Mexico in 2002.
If, as is now expected, the Calderon government extradites the rest of the AFO leaders to the United States, the cartel’s top leadership would stand trial in federal court in San Diego. The evidence against them, painstakingly accumulated over a decade and a half by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and other federal law enforcement agencies, is overwhelming.
That leaves the battered Arellano Felix Organization apparently under the uncertain leadership of the sole Arellano brother still at large, the reclusive Eduardo.
Thanks to years of dedicated and often dangerous work by law enforcement in Mexico and the United States, the AFO’s two-decade reign at or near the top of Mexico’s drug cartels is ending.
Meanwhile, President Calderon has sent the Mexican army and thousands of federal agents into Tijuana, Cuidad Juarez, the states of Sinaloa and Michoacan and other regions long infested with narco-traffickers. The United States must wish Calderon well, provide maximum cooperation, and continue to press for extradition of all drug traffickers under indictment in the United States.
A counter-narcotics war popularly disparaged as a chronic loser, yet vital to the national interests of both Mexico and the United States, is producing its biggest victories ever.