The Mexican drug kingpin was shackled to the railing of a U.S. Coast Guard cutter cruising up the coast of Baja California when he saw a curious sight: A hovering helicopter lowering somebody by rope onto the deck of a nearby boat.
The dangling person in the green flight suit was Laura Duffy, a federal prosecutor from San Diego. She had come after getting word that U.S. authorities had arrested the kingpin, Javier Arellano Felix, aboard his yacht on the Gulf of California.
Duffy, a blue-eyed 47-year-old, questioned Arellano Felix that day, but it was her air-drop entry that made a lasting impression. Throughout the case that culminated in 2007 with his being sentenced to life behind bars, Arellano Felix referred to Duffy as La Mujer del Cielo, the woman from the sky.
"I'm sure my client didn't realize that this young, attractive woman had immense power and authority in regards to his criminal prosecution," said David Bartick, the defense attorney for Arellano Felix.
Duffy is now the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California, her handling of the sweeping case targeting the Arellano Felix drug cartel having eased her way through the appointment process with unanimous congressional approval and high expectations to keep the pressure on organized crime groups in Baja California.
By many measures, it seems a futile task. U.S. government efforts to target top Mexican kingpins have largely failed to diminish the power of Mexico's drug cartels, with each capture and conviction seeming only to spawn new, even deadlier crime bosses who are expanding their reach across Mexico.
But the U.S. prosecution of the Arellano Felix cartel, also known as the Tijuana cartel, has been a rare, albeit qualified, success story, leading to the imprisonment of most of its leaders and leaving the once powerful organized crime group severely weakened, if not dismantled.
Duffy, who headed the prosecution team, gets much of the credit from U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officials. An Iowa-born mother of one, Duffy cut her teeth prosecuting heroin, marijuana and steroid trafficking rings before taking on the Arellano Felix case, which has lasted more than a decade.
The U.S. attorney in the Southern District, which covers San Diego and Imperial counties, is mainly responsible for managing the enormous caseload of illegal immigration prosecutions, a policy that Duffy is expected to continue.
But her high-profile experience suggests that the Obama administration wants to continue the aggressive pursuit of top Mexican drug traffickers. Duffy, who took office in June and was formally sworn in earlier this month, wasted no time establishing herself as a formidable force.
Flanked by top federal and local law enforcement officials at her first news conference in July, she announced an indictment targeting the remnants of the Arellano Felix cartel. The investigation snared 31 suspects, including a top Baja California state law enforcement official who was arrested in San Diego on his way to a meeting with his U.S. counterparts.
"The members of the Arellano Felix cartel who have been indicted and convicted ... are some of the most violent organized crime figures this region of the country has ever seen," Duffy said in a written response to questions. "I am committed to cleaning up the remains of the Arellano Felix cartel and turning our attention to those who seek to take over where it left off."
Duffy is widely respected in San Diego legal circles and considered a no-nonsense prosecutor, a perfectionist who demands the same from others. "You can see that this is going to be an incredibly high-powered administration," San Diego County Dist. Atty. Bonnie Dumanis said at the news conference.
But although Duffy's derring-do has achieved near myth-making proportions — her airdrop experience was recounted at a congressional hearing in May — some analysts question whether prosecutions, although disruptive in the short term, make a difference overall.
The Arellano Felix cartel may be on its last legs, but other organized crime groups are probably jockeying to fill the void, they say. And the cartel contributed greatly to its own demise, earning the wrath of rival cartels and the Mexican government, which provided U.S. prosecutors with extraordinary cooperation.
"The [cartel] was not just a target of U.S. law enforcement, but also a target of its enemies," said David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. "It's quite likely that U.S. and Mexican law enforcement benefitted from the animosity that other cartels felt" toward the Arellano Felix cartel.
Duffy, who went to law school at Creighton University in Nebraska, joined the U.S. Department of Justice in 1993 and quickly made her mark handling narcotics cases. She oversaw or led the prosecutions of Mexican Mafia members, Colombian heroin traffickers, Mexican veterinarians peddling anabolic steroid and others.
In the late 1990s she joined the Drug Enforcement Administration-led task force targeting the Arellano Felix cartel. Led by brothers from the Mexican state of Sinaloa — among them Benjamin, the reputed mastermind; Ramon, the enforcer; and Javier, the hard-partying young brother — the organization had turned Baja California into a major staging ground for drug smuggling into California.
The indictment announced in 2003 could serve as a grim boilerplate of criminality for modern Mexican organized crime, detailing a 16-year reign of terror that catapulted the cartel to the heights of narco-power. The brothers and several associates were charged with torturing, kidnapping and murdering rivals, attempting to trade arms for cocaine with Colombian rebels, systemically bribing Mexican authorities and stockpiling hundreds of high-powered weapons.
During the investigation, many witnesses, informants and Mexican law enforcement officials working with the task force were intimidated, tortured or killed, including Jose Patino Moreno, a crusading Mexican federal prosecutor whose head was crushed by an industrial press in 2000.
"His murder affected us all. Laura and I worked with him," said San Diego County Superior Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel, a former federal prosecutor who oversaw the prosecution team at the time. The tragedy, he said, only stiffened Duffy's resolve. "She didn't flinch.... She didn't allow that to make her rethink whether or not she should continue with the case. She persisted."
Over the years, several cartel suspects were captured and extradited, but the brothers remained out of reach. Benjamin was arrested and jailed in Mexico in 2002. Ramon was gunned down in Mazatlan the same year. Another brother, Eduardo, went into hiding.
When Javier Arellano Felix was intercepted in 2006 on his sportfishing boat, which was being tracked by the DEA through a global positioning system device, Duffy boarded the helicopter in San Diego. Soon after being lowered 150 feet from the helicopter, she was on the Coast Guard cutter, sitting across the table from the trafficker. He was wearing a tank top and flip-flops. Duffy offered him a soft drink and introduced herself.
"That kind of shows the grittiness of Laura Duffy, literally dropping herself from a helicopter," said Bartick, the defense attorney. "She took advantage of an opportunity to talk to him before he received legal representation."
Arellano Felix is one of seven cartel associates who have been sentenced in recent years. His brothers Benjamin and Eduardo are jailed in Mexico and are being sought for extradition.
In Tijuana, meanwhile, the organization's leadership has passed to a nephew of the brothers, Fernando Sanchez Arellano, who has found himself in Duffy's cross- hairs. The indictment she announced in July targeted dozens of his crew members. It's not clear if Sanchez Arellano himself has been indicted. Duffy wouldn't comment on his status.
Some authorities believe the young man has fled Tijuana. Others think he is flourishing as he revives his uncles' legacy. For some, the Tijuana cartel will survive so long as the Arellano name lives on.
Duffy appears to be trying to erase it.
In the indictment against the nephew's gang, it is referred to as the Fernando Sanchez Organization. Conspicuously absent is the infamous name: Arellano.
"The [Arellano Felix cartel] as we've known it no longer does exist," Duffy said.
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