Mexico's Cartels Sow Seeds of Corruption, Destruction : Crime: Fight for control of U.S.-bound drug trade is deadly competition. Gangs enlist police and politicians.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This city is the main battlefield in a ferocious war for the border that has raged across Mexico, spilling south to Venezuela and north to San Francisco.

At stake: the Pacific corridor that supplies Colombian cocaine to California, one of the most lucrative smuggling pipelines in the world.

The combatants are two major Mexican drug cartels--one based in Tijuana, the other in the northwestern state of Sinaloa. More than 200 people have been killed in their battles during the past five years, many of them anonymous young gunslingers and drug-runners.

The conflict has also produced--in the vernacular of the distant but comparable Sicilian Mafia wars--a list of "excellent cadavers": The former state attorney general of Sinaloa, murdered while jogging in a Mexico City park. The head of the Sinaloa human rights commission, slain on orders of a federal police commander. A Roman Catholic cardinal, mowed down in a Guadalajara airport shootout. A federal police commander, killed by fellow officers guarding a Tijuana drug lord. The Tijuana police chief, ambushed on a highway. And most recently, the former state attorney general of Jalisco, shot as he left home to teach a law class.

The repercussions have been felt at the highest levels of the Mexican government, battering a president, a governor and an ambassador. The rival cartels have enlisted political figures, police forces, business magnates, U.S. border inspectors, San Diego street gang members and rich Mexican youths.

'It Is All Based, of Course, on Money'

"The mafias have taken the concept of corruption to its maximum expression," said Victor Clark Alfaro, director of an independent human rights center in Tijuana. "Their talent has been to convert corruption into a practice that overwhelms everything. And it is all based, of course, on money."

Driven both by U.S. dollars and clan hatred, the gangsters have dueled in a cinematic series of military-style attacks, complete with heavy weapons and explosives. Their vicious vendetta has not spared women, children, bystanders or investigators brave enough to get in the way.

Mexican police have scored a few victories, including the arrest of a top Sinaloa boss in 1993. But for the most part, the generals in this war--and often their lieutenants--appear invincible.

In a seeming triumph, a Baja California special prosecutor last month completed a dogged yearlong investigation of the murder of the city police chief and issued warrants for two federal police commanders allegedly allied with the Tijuana cartel. Although federal prosecutors promised to round up the fugitives, they have made little progress.

"Every day, it becomes harder to do this job," a regional Mexican investigator recently told The Times. "There are powerful obstacles within the state police forces, people allied with the narcos . The federal police are another obstacle. And the third enemy is the bad guys themselves. So you are fighting on three fronts. It goes beyond the police. Organized crime has the support and participation of politicians. It happened in Colombia. And it is happening in Mexico."

The protagonists are the alleged kingpins of the Sinaloa cartel, Hector (El Guero) Palma and Joaquin (Chapo) Guzman, and their Tijuana-based nemeses, the Arellano Felix brothers--Benjamin, Javier and Ramon.

Guzman is in prison in Mexico, and the swashbuckling Arellanos no longer make the jet-set party circuit or appear in the Tijuana social pages, as they did until mid-1993, according to police and anti-corruption activists.

But the Arellanos still frequent glitzy night spots. According to government and police sources, the gangsters were seen in February at a cowboy music club in a mall about a mile from the international border.

The rival operations also continue pumping drugs north: mostly cocaine that arrives in the Mexican interior from Colombia and is shipped by rail, truck and small plane to northwestern border cities. The most active route runs through the desert city of Mexicali, where smuggling specialists, who function as subcontractors for the different cartels, send groups of loaded vehicles through the Calexico port of entry to the Los Angeles area, often warehousing the cocaine in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

This Imperial Valley corridor accounted for almost half of the cocaine seized along the U.S. Southwestern border during the past three years, according to statistics compiled by a U.S. anti-drug task force. Corruption speeds the northbound passage.

Police Along as Guards?

"We have reliable information that every load of cocaine that comes into Mexicali is guarded by Mexican federal police," said a high-ranking U.S. law enforcement official, who asked not to be identified.

At one point last year, mid- and high-level federal police commander positions in three northwestern states--Baja California, Baja California Sur and Sonora--were held by three politically connected brothers in their 20s named Garcia Gaxiola, Mexican officials say.

One of the brothers, Rodolfo, took the post in Baja in April. Rodolfo Garcia is now one of the fugitives charged with killing the Tijuana police chief. Mexican investigators suspect all three brothers of drug ties and said they are investigating whether their simultaneous assignments established a "triangle of control."

The corruptive influence reaches across the border. A continuing probe of U.S. border inspectors has resulted in charges against two Calexico inspectors for waving across tons of smuggled cocaine in exchange for bribes. Just last month, a grand juror from the Imperial Valley was convicted in San Diego federal court of leaking sensitive information to traffickers--the first case of grand jury tampering in the history of the Southern District of the U.S. District Court.

And huge drug profits flood the interconnected economies of California and Baja California.

U.S. agents arrested the owners of several Southern California currency exchanges as part of a massive indictment in April, revealing how traffickers infiltrated the thriving cross-border industry to move and launder their millions. The suspects included the owner of a chain of currency businesses in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties and a prominent Tijuana accountant who the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says is linked to the Arellanos.

"They got caught up in the drug business," said Thomas J. Clifford, a retired DEA chief who commanded "Operation Green Ice," a sophisticated sting in which undercover agents posed as money launderers and set up fake front companies. "They didn't care. They were brokers. Their job was to move money."

In Baja, cash-intensive industries such as tourism and construction have become hotbeds of money laundering, according to law enforcement officials. Carloads of smuggled cash enter a Mexican banking system that has been slow to establish safeguards, authorities said.

"There is a capital investment of drug proceeds going into Mexico's infrastructure," said Jack Kelley, chief of Customs Enforcement in San Diego. "Like the Al Capones and the Escobars [of Colombia], they have to invest it somewhere. There are hundreds of millions of dollars going into Tijuana banks. How could any banker not know about that kind of cash?"

The overlap of legal and illegal economies was illustrated when DEA agents posing as traffickers met in 1992 with accused trafficker Alejandro Cazares, owner of a Tijuana office tower and nightclubs. Cazares urged the undercover agents to launder drug proceeds by investing in a Baja hotel development, according to agents. Cazares later was slain in a machine-gun ambush near his home in the exclusive San Diego suburb of Coronado.

Taking Advantage of NAFTA

Gangsters also have acquired trucking companies and sought consultants with expertise in the North American Free Trade Agreement, "someone knowledgeable who could counsel them on how to take advantage of NAFTA to move their product," said Craig Chretien, special agent in charge of the DEA in San Diego.

In addition to being a struggle for control of the lucrative turf, the war is profoundly personal.

"There is still a very strong hate relationship that will not go away until one kills the other off," said Chretien. "It's personal more than business. Business they could work out." The antagonists are all said by Mexican and U.S. law enforcement agents to be former proteges of Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, the imprisoned kingpin known as "The Godfather," who is a relative of the Arellanos. While the Arellano brothers inherited the Felix empire in the late 1980s, Palma and Guzman allegedly broke away to form the Sinaloa cartel. "The Godfather" took vicious revenge in 1989, according to a high-ranking Mexican law enforcement official.

"Felix, like the twisted old man that he is, sends a group of Venezuelan narcos , led by a guy named Clavel, to infiltrate Guero's [Palma's] family," said the official.

Rafael Clavel Moreno ran off with Palma's wife and two small children, according to Mexican police. After persuading the wife to withdraw $7 million of Palma's money from a bank account, Clavel killed the woman in San Francisco and took the two children to Venezuela, where he threw them off a bridge, according to Mexican police. He died in a Venezuelan prison.

"After that, Guero is ready to kill anything that he thinks has any relation to an Arellano," the Mexican official said. "And the Arellanos know that it is kill or be killed."

The Palma-Guzman alliance allegedly ordered the murders of the former Sinaloa attorney general, Rodolfo Alvarez Farber, and the state's human rights commission president, Norma Corona Sapien, who was looking into police corruption and had served as a lawyer for Venezuelan traffickers connected to Felix. Corona's death in 1990 spurred Carlos Salinas de Gortari, then president, to form Mexico's national human rights commission.

During the next several years, car-bomb attacks and wild street clashes claimed dozens of lives in the cities of Culiacan, Guadalajara and Tijuana. The gunmen often sported automatic weapons and police or military uniforms; they ranged from professional killers to sons of wealthy families, known as "juniors," attracted to the narco-gangster mystique.

In November, 1992, the Arellanos barely escaped a commando-style assault mounted by Guzman forces on a Puerto Vallarta disco, police say. The federal police contingent had left town before the gunfight; credentials of the Baja California state judicial police were found on the bodies of slain Arellano soldiers.

The Baja attorney general insisted the credentials were false. But the criminal allegiances of state and federal forces soon exploded into the open. The death of Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo of Guadalajara at an airport shootout on May 24, 1993, was the first major sign of the "narco-politics" crisis that has now engulfed Mexico, tarnishing Salinas' much-touted image as an economic and political reformer.

Motive for a Killing

That slaying is still under investigation. The official version goes like this: Posadas arrived to pick up Msgr. Girolamo Prigione, the Vatican's ambassador in Mexico, at the Guadalajara air terminal just as the Arellanos ambushed Guzman. The gunmen mistook the 64-year-old cardinal, who was wearing black clerical garb, for Guzman or one of his entourage and shot him point-blank 14 times.

Critics, however, say the cardinal was slain intentionally because of his public opposition to the power of the cartels.

In the aftermath, police say, Ramon Arellano and about a dozen gunmen fled on a commercial flight to Tijuana held for them on the runway. They were then met and driven away from the Tijuana airport by allies in the federal police, according to the high-ranking Mexican official, who is close to the investigation.

Eight of the suspects later arrested in the case are members of a San Diego street gang recruited by the Arellanos. Police say gang members worked as traveling hit men, committing murders in Mexico, San Diego and Los Angeles. U.S. and Mexican police say the gang members were offered up as fall guys in the cardinal's death.

Another mysterious aspect of the case is a reference to a powerful political clan.

A flight attendant told investigators that a "son of Hank Gonzalez" was a passenger in the first-class section near the men later identified as Arellano gangsters, according to documents in a San Diego court.

Upon arrival in Tijuana, another flight attendant stated, "there were a lot of judiciary police because they were waiting for the son of Hank Gonzalez," according to the extradition documents for the Arellano soldiers.

Carlos Hank Gonzalez, a billionaire former Cabinet secretary and close associate of the former president, is a leader of ruling-party conservatives known as "the dinosaurs." The Hank family is being investigated on both sides of the border on suspicion of acting as a link between the ruling party and drug cartels, officials said.

"They are a viable target," said a high-ranking U.S. law enforcement official, who asked not to be named.

The Hank family has denied any involvement in the Posadas case and said Hank's son was not on the flight.

The cardinal's slaying was an enormous embarrassment for a nation presenting itself as a model of modernization, and put pressure on Salinas to strike back. Police locked up numerous suspects, including Guzman, but that left at large the Arellanos, who did not act the part of the most wanted men in Mexico.

Critics dismiss the manhunt as largely cosmetic. "No one in this country accepts the idea that they cannot be found, when this country has an impressive apparatus of domestic espionage," said Jose Luis Perez Canchola, vice president of the Mexican Academy of Human Rights. "This has been a science-fiction search."

The Arellanos arranged through a Tijuana priest, Father Gerardo Montano, to meet with Prigione, the Vatican ambassador, six months after the cardinal's death. The gangsters profess to be devout Roman Catholics and wanted to assert their innocence.

The ambassador's subsequent revelation of the two Mexico City meetings caused an uproar. Prigione told reporters that it was his priestly duty to meet with the drug lords. Tijuana Bishop Emilio Berlie, a Prigione ally and rising star in the Mexican church hierarchy, endured critical press reports suggesting that he oversaw Montano's role as go-between.

Gun Battle in Tijuana

The Baja state government was the next institution hit by scandal. In March of last year, a close-range gun battle erupted at a busy Tijuana intersection when an elite federal unit pulled over state police officers chauffeuring Ramon Arellano in a stolen Chevrolet Suburban. The seven officers from Mexico City were swarmed by carloads of gunmen--including Baja and federal police riding shotgun for Arellano. Five men died, among them the federal commander, Alejandro Castaneda Andrade, who came fatally close to catching his powerful prey.

The state-federal hostilities intensified, a labyrinth of clandestine loyalties complicating the case as rival drug lords tried to manipulate the police investigations. "What you have are two sides that want to keep the turf, so in these cases they try to push the blame onto each other," said a Baja police official.

On March 23, 1994, presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio was assassinated in Tijuana, a crime since linked to a suspected alliance of drug lords, politicians and security forces. And Federico Benitez Lopez, the reformist city police chief, was slain in a highway shooting five weeks later, allegedly on orders of the Arellano cartel.

The established motive of the chief's slaying was his refusal of $100,000 a month in bribes to rein in his municipal police, who were seizing more drugs than the federal police, the main drug-fighting agency. But authorities also suspect that Benitez's independent inquiries into a suspected cover-up of the Colosio case by federal police played a role.

In addition to Rodolfo Garcia, the suspects in the Benitez slaying include two other federal commanders, Raul Loza Parra and Marco Antonio Jacome Saldana, who led the initial Colosio investigation. For reasons that are unclear, Jacome also videotaped the shooting of candidate Colosio at a campaign rally.

Linking Crime and Politics

"There could have been a convergence of interests," the Mexican regional investigator said. "It could be that the motives in the two cases coincide and that the actors are similar: organized crime and politicians."

In a series of twists, the state attorney general resigned under investigation in the federal-state shootout last year in Tijuana, and his deputy was briefly jailed--by officers under Garcia, the federal commander now charged in Benitez's murder.

In the mounting scandal, the opposition-party administration of Baja California Gov. Ernesto Ruffo Appel narrowly avoided collapse. In a recent interview, Ruffo asserted that the root of the turmoil was political, resulting partly from his refusal to do business with traffickers.

"I believe there are other [state] governments run by other parties that reach an accord with the criminals and live in peace," Ruffo said. "We don't sit down with the criminals, so there is instability in the underworld and a struggle for power."

The struggle for Mexico's northwest corridor has certainly been exacerbated as the rival drug gangs try to expand their presence, taking advantage of the official focus on the Arellanos. U.S. and Mexican law enforcement say they are cooperating closely in the hunt and predict that major breakthroughs are imminent--a prediction that has been made before without results.

Just last month, the Tijuana cartel allegedly carried out the execution-style slaying of the former attorney general of Jalisco, Leobardo Larios Guzman. Investigators interpret the crime as a message of defiance.

"We are fighting a monster," the regional Mexican investigator said. "We have just begun to cut off a few tentacles. But we are not close to killing it."

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