Pubdate: Mon, 11 Mar 2002
Source: San Jose Mercury News (CA)
Copyright: 2002 San Jose Mercury News
Author: Tim Weiner (NYT)


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 

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.

Saturday morning, in a law enforcement coup with great potential rewards 
for the government of President Vicente Fox, their efforts finally paid 
off. Fox will play host to President Bush next week, and his stature will 
be bolstered by the arrest of Benjamin Arellano Felix, 49, the chief of the 
gang and the "top priority" of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, 
said its chief, Asa Hutchinson.

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

There they found Benjamin Arellano Felix, 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 that Ramon died in a shootout Feb. 10, 
though his body has disappeared.

Money laundered

 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 States.

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 politicians.

The arrest of Benjamin Arellano Felix may end the annual ritual of 
"certification," in which the United States judges Mexican drug-enforcement 
cooperation. Bush is pressing the Republican-controlled House to approve a 
limited amnesty for Mexican migrants, and promises of economic-development 
assistance for Mexico may flow from the White House as well.

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 its Tijuana headquarters.

In Peru, the now-deposed security chief, Vladimir Montesino, brokered the 
sale of 18 tons of cocaine to the gang.

In Colombia, it 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.

What comes next?

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 its 
rivals in one of the world's most lucrative businesses.

"People here remain fearful of what will come next," said Raul Ramrez 
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 fundamental forces of the drug trade remain intact, particularly the 
demand for drugs in the United States, and increasingly in Mexico," he 
said. "As long as there is that demand, there will be drug cartels to feed it."
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