Pubdate: Tue, 12 Mar 2002
Source: Pueblo Chieftain (CO)
Copyright: 2002 The Star-Journal Publishing Corp.
Author: Julie Watson, Associated Press


TIJUANA, Mexico - With the Arellano Felix brothers out of the picture - one 
in jail, another apparently dead - U.S. and Mexican authorities believe 
their drug gang is falling apart.

"Basically this is it for them," said Donald Thornhill Jr. of the Drug 
Enforcement Administration in San Diego, Calif. Benjamin and Ramon Arellano 
Felix "were really the glue that kept the organization together."

The brothers allegedly built one of Latin America's most powerful and 
brutal smuggling businesses.

Benjamin Arellano Felix was captured by Mexican troops Saturday in Puebla, 
east of Mexico City. Authorities said he confirmed reports that his brother 
Ramon died Feb. 10 in a shootout with police in Mazatlan.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher called the 
Arellano Felix organization "one of the most violent and brutal cartels in 
the world" and said the arrest was the most significant ever of a wanted 
drug trafficker in Mexico.

The brothers have eight other siblings, some allegedly involved in the 
ring. One is in jail. But Thornhill, who has been tracking them since the 
1980s, said he doesn't see anyone who can succeed the duo.

"Benjamin was the business side of the organization while Ramon was a 
stone-cold killer who surrounded himself with like-minded people. That was 
what made them very much successful at what they did," Thornhill said.

"I don't see people among their ranks that could possibly keep up with 
them. I think the remaining brothers don't have the juice to keep the 
organization running."

Nobody expects the gang's fall to halt trafficking. Several drug kingpins 
at least as powerful as the Arellano Felixes have fallen since 1985 and 
drugs keep flowing across the border.

Many fear the brothers' absence could set off a battle for control over the 
lucrative drug corridor to California.

"I'm afraid there is going to be a war," said Tijuana journalist Jesus 
Blancornelas, who survived an assassination attempt by the gang.

On Monday, Benjamin Arellano Felix made his first appearance in a closed 
courtroom at Mexico's top-security La Palma prison. He is accused of 
bribery, drug smuggling and criminal association.

His attorneys asked for a delay in the arraignment; his plea and a judge's 
decision on whether he should be formally charged are likely Friday.

U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Davidow said Monday that he expects U.S. 
authorities to seek the extradition of Arellano Felix, but he added, "I 
think that Mr. Arellano will have to face very serious charges here in 
Mexico" first.

Originally from Sinaloa state, the brothers moved to Tijuana in the 1980s 
and turned their family's small smuggling operation into a fearsome empire 
that spread to at least 15 Mexican states and across the border.

Officials say Ramon enlisted the sons of some of Tijuana's wealthiest 
families as killers while Benjamin worked on buying off officials.

Their methods were so effective that neither felt the need to change his 
appearance through plastic surgery despite being among the most wanted men 
on both sides of the border.

The gang raised the savagery of Mexico's drug-related violence to a new 
level, even slaughtering children, whom other drug lords had tended to spare.

Thornhill said the ferocity of the killings shocked even veteran law 
enforcement officers. In 1996, Ramon's gunmen shot a state prosecutor more 
than 100 times and then drove their van over his body dozens of times.

"All drug organizations tend to be violent but not like these people, who 
are absolutely every bit cold-blooded," Thornhill said. "The fact that they 
are out of circulation is to everybody's benefit." Two weeks ago, Mexican 
police arrested a couple who were sending drugs to the United States for 
the gang through a tunnel built 20 feet under the U.S. border. Equipped 
with lights, steel rails and an electric cart, the tunnel started behind a 
fireplace in the couple's bedroom and ended inside a California home.

A U.S. Customs official said he expects minor smugglers to flood the border 
with drugs while control over the territory is in flux.

Walking by one of the wanted posters for the brothers that still dot the 
world's busiest border crossing, Rigoberto Puentes, 52, said although the 
drug trade will continue, he's happy the brothers are gone. "There were so 
many killings, so much corruption, so many drugs," the Tijuana mechanic 
said. "It affected us all. My kids have drug problems. I used drugs for 12 
years. So I think it's great they finally took them down. At least we can 
get a break from all this if only for a little while."
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