Pubdate: Sun, 24 Aug 2003
Source: Newsday (NY)
Copyright: 2003 Newsday Inc.
Author: Letta Tayler


Mexico City - Swap tequila for Chianti and the scene could have been lifted
from a Godfather movie. On Aug. 15, as alleged members of a top Mexican drug
cartel toasted their successes at an open-air restaurant in a hillside village,
soldiers stormed in and nabbed them before they could finish uttering "Salud!"

Mexican and U.S. authorities immediately hailed the arrests of suspected
kingpin Armando Valencia Cornelio - sought by U.S. prosecutors as a major drug
supplier to cities including New York - and seven lieutenants as a major blow
to the drug trade from Mexico to the United States.

"Armando Valencia's apprehension was a significant step forward in
[dismantling] ... key trafficking organizations that plague both of our
countries," said Karen Tandy, chief of the U.S. Drug Enforcement

But some drug-trafficking experts predicted the arrests will do little to stem
the flow of illegal drugs into the United States. Their skepticism underscores
the enduring difficulties of the United States' multibillion-dollar war against

"Rather than touting these arrests as major triumphs, one should see them as
small battles won in a major war in which the ultimate outcome is very much in
doubt," said Bruce Bagley, a drug trafficking specialist at the University of
Florida in Miami.

Since taking office 2 1/2 years ago, President Vicente Fox has worked
aggressively with U.S. authorities to take out a string of Mexican drug
kingpins, many of whom had received protection under previous governments. In
the most notorious cases, Benjamin Arellano Felix was captured in March 2002
and his brother, Ramon Arellano Felix, was killed a month earlier in a shootout
in the Pacific resort of Mazatlan.

But neither the quality nor the price of cocaine and heroin on U.S. streets has
changed significantly, suggesting to many observers that supplies remain

Valencia, 43, also known as "El Juanito" ("Little John"), is a onetime avocado
producer with a passion for thoroughbred horses who lived briefly in California
in the 1980s. He and his alleged underlings were nabbed in Tlajomulco de
Zuniga, outside the western city of Guadalajara.

The Valencia cartel, also known as the Millenium cartel, was one of the four
most powerful in Mexico and moved up to one-third of the cocaine, heroin and
marijuana shipped to the United States from this country, Mexican prosecutors
said. Mexico is the primary transit point to its northern neighbor for those
drugs. Valencia "is the strongest leader of what is left of the Mexican
cartels," declared Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, who heads the Mexican
attorney general's organized crime unit.

Independent drug experts said they thought Mexican authorities might be
inflating the amount of drugs Valencia moved, but not substantially.

Indicted in 1999 in Miami federal court on charges of smuggling cocaine from
Colombia to the United States, Valencia allegedly shipped drugs into New York
City, Chicago and California with the help of an Ecuadoran-based uncle,
Benjamin Valenci Lucatero, who was arrested in Ecuador in February.

Unlike the Arellano Felix brothers, whose violent exploits and lavish lifestyle
made them models for Mexican drug dealers in the 2000 movie "Traffic," Valencia
"kept his illegal operations very discreet," prosecutors said in a statement.

That didn't stop him from being ruthless. "The Valencia cartel distinguished
itself by executing public servants and threatening others who were involved in
investigating them," said Mexican Attorney General Rafael Macedo de la Concha.

Prosecutors said Valencia got his start in the drug world in 1985, working for
kingpins including Amado Carrillo Fuentes, who died in 1997 from botched
plastic surgery meant to conceal his identity. Following Carrillo Fuentes's
death, Valencia went independent with his cousin, Luis Valencia Valencia, 48,
who remains a fugitive.

The Valencia cartel dominated drug trade in three contiguous Pacific states -
Jalisco, Michoacan and Colima - and was fighting rivals for control in the
border city of Nuevo Laredo, authorities said.

In recent years, prosecutors said, the group moved almost 100 tons of drugs
annually to the United States, whisking much of it in speedboats from Colombia
to the Galapagos Islands, where they transferred it to a fleet of tuna ships
that sailed to the port of Jalisco. From there, the drugs allegedly were
trucked to the border.

Political analysts say the string of drug busts gives Fox a needed boost with
the White House, with which he's been warring over migration issues. The
dismantling of large cartels also may put a dent in widescale money laundering,
payoffs and other offshoots of the drug trade, according to U.S. and Mexican

But as Mexico decapitates the traditional, Cosa Nostra-style drug syndicates,
smaller groups are proliferating that are harder to capture because of their
flexibility and low profiles, trafficking experts say.

"The emerging gangs aren't these hierarchical mafias with a head and division
of labor. They are becoming more fluid, with a cluster of four, five or six
members who've got information and know how to bribe the right people," said
John Bailey, a Mexico specialist at Georgetown University.

And as Mexico squeezes traffickers, Colombian drug producers may simply shift
more of their transit routes to other countries, acknowledged Tandy, who said a
global crackdown is needed to fight that "balloon effect."

"As long as there is demand in the United States, there will be a ready supply
of drugs," said Jorge Chabat, a Mexico City-based drug trafficking expert.
"Cracking the Valencia gang may help Mexico, but it won't necessarily help the
United States."


From 1996 to 1998, the Valencia cartel, also known as the Millennium cartel,
allegedly transported millions of dollars of cocaine from South America to
Mexico and the United States. How it did it, according to the Mexico Attorney
General's Office:

1. Cocaine shipments leave Colombia via speedboats.

2. Speedboats drop the cocaine at the Galapagos Islands, where it is loaded
onto tuna fishing boats belonging to the cartel.

3. Tuna boats transport the cocaine to the Jalisco coast of Mexico.

4. Cocaine is transported over land to warehouses in Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo,
Mexico, where it is smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border.

5. Distributors receive the cocaine in Laredo and McAllen, Texas, and from
there ship it to New York, Chicago and points in California.
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