Pubdate: Mon, 11 Mar 2002
Source: Orange County Register (CA)
Copyright: 2002 The Orange County Register
Author: Tim Weiner, The New York Times


The death and capture of the two brothers came within roughly a month's time.

MEXICO CITY -- The legend of the Arellano Felix drug gang is written 
in blood all over Mexico.

They killed for business and pleasure, often taking lives at random. 
Their bullets killed the Roman Catholic cardinal in 1993. They killed 
eight infants and children to settle a score in 1998.

But one death among many - the killing of Pepe Patino - may have been 
the beginning of the end for the gang, Mexico's most violent and 
powerful drug cartel.

Twenty-three months ago today, Patino, the Mexican drug prosecutor 
most trusted by his American counterparts, left a San Diego safe 
house with two colleagues and crossed the border for a morning 
meeting in Tijuana. Thirty-six hours later, their bodies were found 
in a desert ravine.

"We loved Pepe," said an American drug-enforcement official. "That 
was the last straw." American and Mexican officials, vowing revenge, 
redoubled their efforts to break the Arellano Felix cartel.

On Saturday morning, in a law enforcement coup with great potential 
rewards for the government of President Vicente Fox, their efforts 
finally paid off.

Mexican commandos, armed with intelligence from the United States and 
bolstered by a new and growing trust between Mexican and American 
counter-narcotics forces, burst into a house in Puebla, on a street 
called Cerrada Escondida, or Hidden Dead-End.

There they found 49-year-old Benjamin Arellano Felix -- chief of the 
gang and the "top priority" of the U.S. Drug Enforcement 
Administration -- a sheaf of $100 bills and an altar with flickering 
candles in memory of his brother, Ramon. The Mexican authorities now 
say they are sure Ramon died in a shootout Feb. 10, though his body 
has disappeared.

 From humble beginnings as liquor and cigarette smugglers, the 
Arellano Felix brothers - Benjamin was the brain, Ramon the brawn - 
shipped tons of Colombian cocaine and Mexican-made methamphetamine 
every month, feeding a seemingly insatiable demand in the United 

They pierced the border with ships, airplanes, trucks and tunnels, 
including a 1,200-foot underground railroad. They laundered their 
cash into networks of legitimate-looking business and real estate 
ventures, American officials said, while paying millions of dollars 
in bribes a month to police officers, prosecutors, judges and 

For years, American officials publicly despaired about the Arellano 
Felix gang's grip on Mexico. A typical assessment came from a former 
DEA administrator, Thomas Constantine: "They have become more 
powerful than the instruments of government in Mexico."

The gang's power extended far beyond their Tijuana headquarters. In 
Peru, the now-deposed security chief Vladimir Montesino brokered the 
sale of 18 tons of cocaine to the gang. In Colombia, they bartered 
guns and money for drugs from the rebels fighting the government. 
Gangs loyal to the cartel moved their drugs on the streets of scores 
of American cities and towns.

Their influence was reflected in the first official reports of the 
death of Pepe Patino: "A tragic traffic accident," said a state 
police commander.

In fact, Patino had been kidnapped, tortured and killed, his skull 
crushed by a pneumatic press. He was betrayed by a fellow law 
enforcement officer, one among hundreds in Tijuana taking payoffs 
from the gang, a senior DEA official said.

The battle to arrest Benjamin Arellano Felix is over. But in Tijuana 
today, officials are bracing for a war among the remnants of the gang 
and their rivals in the one of the world's most lucrative businesses.

"This is a terrific political coup for President Fox, but people here 
remain fearful of what will come next," said Raul Ramirez Baena, the 
human-rights prosecutor in the Attorney General's Office for Baja 
California. "We have seen what happens when one kingpin falls. There 
are bloody battles, and another one rises in his place.

The arrest may give Mexicans "new confidence" in the police and 
politicians, Baena added. "But we should not lose sight of the fact 
that Mexican law enforcement agencies are infiltrated with 
corruption." That will not change overnight, he said, not even after 
a night that brought what Fox called "a grand triumph" for the forces 
of law.
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