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Mexican Drug Cartels: You Want Silver or Lead? Part 2
email this pageprint this pageemail usChad Deal - San Diego Reader
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September 23, 2010

Benjamín and Ramón Arellano had proven themselves adept criminals, smuggling clothing and consumer electronics across the border for many years. When they inherited their uncle's drug-trafficking business, they already had their roles worked out. Labra acted as mentor to the Arellano brothers and effectively ran the group, which specialized in selling protection to business and political figures. Benjamín was the brains of the operation, governing the strategic aspects of the business. Ramón, 11 years younger, was the enforcer — a role that he is said to have taken joy in. The Arellano Félix organization's savage reputation is largely credited to Ramón's infamous sadistic flair.

"Wherever there is danger, that's where you'll find Ramón," a former narco-junior, Alejandro Hodoyán, told Mexican narcotics agents in 1996 in an interview later run by the Mexican magazine Proceso. "In 1989 or '90, we were at a Tijuana corner without anything to do and he told us, 'Let's go kill someone. Who has a score to settle?' Cars would pass and he'd ask us who we knew. The person we pointed out would appear dead within a week."

Hodoyán was arrested in Tijuana and allegedly tortured for months by a military unit headed by General Gutiérrez for information about the Arellano Félix organization. Gutiérrez was later discovered to be on the payroll of the rival Sinaloa cartel.

"In my 17 years in this job, I've never seen a more violent group," said DEA officer Don Thornhill in a March 15, 2002 U.K. Guardian article. "They would kill people who didn't cooperate. They would kill people who didn't pay a fee or a toll [for moving drugs through their territory]. They would kill people who were not necessarily disloyal to them. They killed them to set an example."

Of the 11 children of Francisco Arellano and Alicia Félix (seven brothers and four sisters), five are known to have played a major role in the Arellano Félix organization. Along with Benjamín and Ramón were Eduardo, Javier, and the oldest Arellano brother, Francisco, who forged important political and police alliances out of his Mazatlán discotheque, Frankie O's. Little is known about the two remaining Arellano brothers, Carlos and Luis, who, though believed to be involved with logistics and laundering for the family cartel, never made it onto U.S. authorities' wanted lists.

Other key members of the early Tijuana cartel were Ismael "El Mayel" Higuera (chief operations officer, money launderer, and boss in Ensenada, who carried a special knife for his signature mutilations), his younger brother Gilberto (overseer of the Mexicali side of operations), and Arturo "El Kitty" Páez (chief recruiter for violent narco-juniors from middle-class Tijuana and San Diego families). These narco-juniors were responsible for surveillance, trafficking product, and settling accounts with traffickers who used the Mexicali-Tijuana corridor without paying the transit tax.

"Some of those juniors went to school here in the United States, as the cross-border influence," said Heidi Landgraff, a group supervisor for a San Diego DEA unit, in a PBS interview. "Some spoke English well. They dressed very nicely. They are not tattooed individuals like someone in a gang. So they could be sitting next to you in a restaurant, and you wouldn't know that."

In order to actualize their international agenda, the Arellano Félix organization also recruited thugs from the United States, including gangsters from Logan Heights. The Arellano brothers were well on their way to becoming part of a drug-trafficking network that, according to U.S. authorities, was estimated to be worth between $13.6 and $48.4 billion per year.

Logan Heights

In 1990, the Logan Heights community was home to 13,488 people, most of them Mexican immigrants. Forty-four percent of the neighborhood lived below the poverty level. Occupying four square miles of turf, the Logan Heights gang had over 400 members, making them San Diego's largest Hispanic gang. The gang comprised several neighborhood sects, including Calle Treinta, Red Steps, Logan Heights 33rd, and Logan Heights 13.

The Logan Heights gangs date back to the car clubs in the '70s, when automotive enthusiasts would cruise Southeast San Diego streets in customized vehicles. The club grew into a gang when they began dealing marijuana and, in the early '80s, PCP. In the mid-'80s, after a string of homicides involving rival gangs Shell Town and Sherman Heights, David Barrón took control of the gang.

"David had this look," retired San Diego Police officer Jorge Sánchez said in a History Channel Gangland special about Logan Heights. "And once you interacted with him, you knew the look. David was a murderer."

Barrón made connections with members of the Arellano Félix organization in federal prison, proving his allegiance by performing hits for the cartel. When he was released in 1988, he had a job secured as bodyguard for Benjamín and Ramón. On November 8, 1992, Barrón demonstrated his loyalty to the Arellano brothers in Puerto Vallarta, when 40 Sinaloa cartel members dressed as federales and led by "El Chapo" Guzmán opened fire on the discotheque where the Arellano brothers were partying, killing innocent bystanders and eight Tijuana cartel members in an attempt to take out the capos. The attack was a retaliation against an increase in the transit tax that cartels had to pay to the Arellano brothers in exchange for transporting drugs across the Tijuana-Mexicali corridor. Barrón returned fire and helped the brothers escape through a bathroom skylight, thus establishing his position as an invaluable asset to the drug lords.

The incident was a wake-up call to the cartel bosses. Barrón was sent to recruit dozens of his Logan Heights thugs to be taken to an isolated ranch in Mexico, where they were trained with AK-47s, handguns, and grenades to be hit men, or sicarios. The gang was then released onto the streets of Tijuana dressed as federal police officers in siren-equipped vehicles to take out rivals of the cartel. The heavy artillery and cartel connection made Logan Heights the most renowned and powerful gang in San Diego. Chicano and Memorial Parks became no-man's-lands, where gangsters would sell PCP-laced marijuana cigarettes. Gang violence increased as more drugs and weapons made their way into the hands of Logan Heights gangsters. The summer of 1993 saw the worst of it, when 26 people were murdered in San Diego as a result of a turf battle over the meth market between the Tijuana cartel and other competing organizations.

The reign of Logan Heights in Mexico came to an end on May 24, 1993, when a hit squad of more than 20 assassins were sent to Guadalajara to kill Sinaloa cartel boss "El Chapo" Guzmán at the airport. Guzmán was Mexico's most-wanted drug trafficker, whose estimated net worth of $1 billion made him the 701st richest man in the world, according to Forbes magazine. It was reported that he would be arriving in a white Mercury Grand Marquis. When the vehicle arrived, the hired gangsters riddled the car with over 30 bullets before hopping a plane back to Tijuana. They soon learned, however, that they had hit the wrong car. In addition to the driver, they had inadvertently killed Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas, the ultimate faux pas in a 90-percent Catholic country.

Both Logan Heights and Tijuana cartel members were forced to lie low as the media continued to release information about the sacrilegious homicide. The heat brought on by the situation resulted in the arrest of the oldest Arellano brother, Francisco, who was detained in Tijuana in December 1993 and booked on weapons charges. In order to assuage the situation, Benjamín cut a deal with Mexican authorities, handing over $10 million and two Logan Heights assassins, Juan "Puma" Vasconez and Juan "Spooky" Méndez. Puma was convicted of weapons charges and sentenced to nine years. Spooky was killed in prison.

Logan Heights were cast out of Mexico, but in San Diego their reputation flourished. Violence skyrocketed with Logan Heights' ego. The gang started selling methamphetamine and conducting business using cell phones and pagers, generating vast amounts of money dealing narcotics. In 1998, in response to Logan Heights' escalated operation, the U.S. Attorneys Office indicted nine gang members who were part of the hit squad that killed the cardinal. Three pleaded guilty and were given 18 to 22 years. The San Diego Police Department also cracked down, putting many key members in jail.

Still, according to California Department of Justice special agent Steve Duncan, the connection to the Tijuana cartel remained strong. Logan Heights members who started as hit men went on to become lieutenants in the Arellano Félix organization.

The Reign of the Arellano-Félix Organization

The Arellano-Félix organization flourished from the mid-'90s to the early 2000s, when it was believed to have supplied over half of the cocaine sold in the United States. It solidified territory in the Mexican states of Sinaloa, Jalisco, Michoacán, Chiapas, and Baja California South and North with such brute force that the Drug Enforcement Agency dubbed it "one of the most powerful, violent, and aggressive drug-trafficking organizations in the world."

The cartel used the 100-mile corridor between Tijuana and Mexicali as its primary point of entry for cocaine, marijuana, heroin, and methamphetamines. It sent "mules," foot-traffickers carrying large backpacks, across the shoddily fenced border and used high-tech tunnels connected to rural farmhouses to transport billions of dollars of drugs into San Diego to be distributed across the United States. The San Ysidro-Tijuana border crossing, with over 50,000 vehicles crossing daily, was and still is a key entry point for illegal drugs.

Additionally, the organization maintained communications centers in major cities throughout Mexico, using radio scanners and other equipment capable of intercepting land-line and cellular phone calls to conduct electronic espionage and countersurveillance against law enforcement. Using high-tech command centers, the cartel kept tabs on its corrupted officials and the entire pecking-order of drug peddlers beneath them.

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