Arellanos' fates prove Mexico's cartels can be beaten

SAN DIEGO – Barely more than a year ago, Francisco Javier Arellano Felix was running one of Mexico’s most powerful, lucrative and violent drug-trafficking cartels, the Tijuana-based Arellano Felix Organization. On Sept. 17, he sat in a United States District Court in San Diego pleading guilty to drug-trafficking charges that will send him to prison for life.

How Arellano Felix went from drug kingpin to orange prison jumpsuit, shackles and a pending life sentence is an instructive tale. For starters, it refutes the popular myths that the drug war is hopeless and that Mexico’s narco-trafficking syndicates are too big, too rich, too ruthlessly brutal and too well protected via payoffs to Mexican police and government officials to be defeated.

Over its 20-year career in international narco-trafficking, the Arellano Felix Organization has been all of those things – big, fabulously wealthy, the steady source of millions of dollars in bribes per month, and brutal beyond belief. Yet, one by one, the brothers who ran this family drug-smuggling empire have been brought down.

Ramon, the AFO’s sadistic killer-enforcer, ended up sprawled dead on a curb in Mazatlan in 2002, a Mexican police officer’s bullet through his head.

Older brother Benjamin, the cartel’s top boss, was captured a month later hiding under an assumed name in Mexico’s interior. He’s just been sentenced to 22 years in prison in Mexico for drug trafficking and, it is widely anticipated, will soon be extradited to the United States to stand trial here. The case amassed against him by U.S. law enforcement and federal prosecutors is overwhelming and exhaustively documented.

Javier (who took over running the AFO after Ramon’s death and Benjamin’s capture) is, as noted, in custody in the United States and heading for a life sentence. At 39, he can look forward to spending the next 40 years or so sitting in a cell wondering whether feeding America’s drug habit and killing regularly to further the business was worth it.

The oldest Arellano Felix brother, Francisco Rafael, is in a U.S. jail awaiting sentencing next month on a two-decade-old California narcotics charge. He had already spent a decade in a Mexican prison on a gun conviction when he was extradited to the United States last year.

That leaves Eduardo Ramon Arellano Felix, a reclusive loner nicknamed "The Doctor" for his one-time medical studies, in charge of the Tijuana cartel. Odds are, Eduardo would be wasting his time making any long-range retirement plans. He’s far more likely to end up caught, convicted in Mexico, then extradited to the United States, convicted and imprisoned here, or perhaps dead.

Yes, the AFO is still in business but it’s much diminished. Rival traffickers are pushing into the AFO’s territory in Mexicali. Its ties to Colombian cocaine suppliers are said to be frayed; the AFO apparently hasn’t always paid its bills. To supplement its income from drug trafficking, the Tijuana cartel is running a kidnapping-for-ransom racket – common thuggery.

The AFO’s victims, never in short supply, often don’t turn up in Mexico’s tally of drug-war killings (officially, 2,100 fatalities last year). Dissolving victims’ remains in vats of acid leaves no bodies to be traced.

The long hunt for Francisco Javier Arellano Felix took three years. When an AFO operative bought a half-million-dollar sportfishing yacht, the Dock Holiday, in the United States on Javier’s behalf in 2005, the Drug Enforcement Administration was watching. Two electronic tracking devices were surreptitiously placed onboard. Thirteen months later, Javier and a party of AFO associates on a fishing foray were caught by the U.S. Coast Guard just outside Mexico’s territorial waters. Patience and an audacious plan netted the biggest fish of all.

Progressively decapitating the Tijuana cartel’s leadership hasn’t happened by accident. A task force of U.S. law enforcement agencies formally established Jan. 1, 1995, focuses exclusively on combatting the AFO and its drug trafficking. The Drug Enforcement Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, the California Department of Justice’s Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement and Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Diego all play key roles.

Successive U.S. attorneys here, starting with Alan Bersin and Chuck La Bella in the 1990s, made targeting the AFO a priority for federal prosecutors.

Ample support from Washington has been essential.

The other indispensable player, of course, is Mexico. Without cooperation from Mexico’s federal government and law enforcement, the fight against that country’s drug cartels would be fatally undermined. Mexico’s new president, Felipe Calderon, is using the Mexican military against the narco-traffickers in half a dozen Mexican states. Calderon is also waging an ambitious campaign to purge Mexico’s notoriously corrupt police forces and to improve their training, pay and professionalism.

Calderon wants help from the United States, perhaps $800 million for helicopters, high-tech surveillance gear, modern police equipment and communications.

In exchange, the Bush administration can insist on two essentials: more reciprocity from Mexico in sharing intelligence on narco-traffickers, plus an absolute commitment to continue extraditing drug kingpins wanted in the United States.

For Americans, Mexico is now the front line in the war on drugs. An estimated 90 percent of all cocaine that reaches the U.S. market comes through Mexico. Mexico is the largest foreign source and supplier of marijuana to the United States. Nearly all of Mexico’s rapidly increasing production of illicit methamphetamine goes to the United States.

The United States and Mexico share a common enemy and a common cause in defeating the narco-traffickers. If the Arellano Felix Organization can be beaten, so can Mexico’s other cartels.