HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Analysis - Mexico's Drug Wars Continue
Pubdate: Wed, 13 Mar 2002
Source: BBC News (UK Web)
Copyright: 2002 BBC
Author: Nick Miles, BBC in Mexico City


The Mexican Government is basking in the news of last Saturday's arrest of 
Benjamin Arellano Felix, the head of Mexico's most powerful drugs cartel.

He allegedly led the cartel for 20 years, based in the town of Tijuana on 
the border with the United States, developing a maze of contacts with 
suppliers of cocaine and heroin in Colombia.

The organisation he set up is believed to have a turnover of billions of 
dollars a year, supplying up to half of the cocaine entering the US every year.

Mr Arellano Felix was on the list of America's 10 most wanted criminals.

Following his arrest, the head of the US Drug Enforcement Agency, Asa 
Hutchinson, called for his extradition to face cocaine smuggling and money 
laundering charges.

Body blow The arrest and the confirmation of the death of his brother, 
Ramon, who ruthlessly ran the security side of the operation, led the 
Mexican attorney general's office to claim that "we have taken the cartel 
to pieces".

Certainly, with arrests of other key figures made in recent months, the 
latest developments mean that the Tijuana operation has been dealt a body blow.

But there is a growing realisation that, as in the past, when a vacuum 
appears at the top of a drugs gang, a bloody turf war follows.

"You can cut off the heads of an organisation, but they will always grow 
back," said Luis Astorga, a specialist in the drugs trade at Mexico City's 
National Autonomous University.

"The business carries on because there are always people from within or 
outside the cartel that are waiting to take over."

Violent Cartel Wars

The history of Mexico's drugs cartels backs this up.

Years of violent struggles followed the arrest in 1989 of Miguel Angel 
Felix, then head of the Mexican cocaine and heroin trade.

The Arellano Felix brothers came out on top, asserting their control over 
the Tijuana cartel.

But struggles between them and traffickers based in the state of Sinaloa 
continued for years.

A shootout in a nightclub in November 1992 left eight people dead.

Another incident six months later left a death toll of seven, including a 
Roman Catholic cardinal - apparently the victim of mistaken identity.

Tit-for-tat killings continued, culminating in the assassination of the 
head of the Sinaloa cartel, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, in 1994.

He was shot dead hours after undergoing plastic surgery.

Hundreds of other lower ranking members of opposing gangs died in the years 
that followed.

Possible Heirs

The killings seemed to die down during the late 1990s as areas of control 
became more delineated, but now that uneasy status quo has been upset.

A number of names are already being put forward to take over the Arellano 
Felix cartel.

"The logical scenario is that the cartels from Sinaloa and the Gulf of 
Mexico now try to break into Tijuana," said Jesus Blancornelas, the editor 
of the Tijuana based magazine Zeta.

"There could be any number of candidates for that. Ismael Zambada, head of 
the Sinaloa cartel, which has already started encroaching on the Tijuana 
patch, is one.

"And don't forget there are a number of other members of the Arellano Felix 
family actively involved in the trade as well. They will want to assert 
their authority too," he said.

Government 'Prepared'

The potential for a bloody war for control has not been lost on the Mexican 

"The security forces are prepared to confront any upsurge in drug-related 
violence that might emerge," said the Defence Minister, General Clemente Vega.

"I can assure society, I can assure Mexico that we are prepared," he said. 
Just what effect the leadership struggle will have on the supply of drugs 
is unclear.

"There may be a short-term drop," said National Autonomous University's 
Luis Astorga.

"But these operations work like any kind of multinational company. If there 
is a demand to fulfil, then normal production will start again as soon as 

"And the demand is still there - there's no sign that narcotics consumption 
in the United States is about to fall away," he said.

Certainly Mexico can rightly claim to deserve the praise it has been 
receiving from the United States for its efforts to fight the drugs trade.

As recently as the mid 1990s, corruption among the police, army and local 
politicians provided a protective shield for the drug smugglers to work 
with impunity.

Now that culture appears to be on the wane. But even if the successes 
against the drugs barons continue, the vast profits to be made in the trade 
will mean there will always be new candidates waiting in the wings to take over.
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