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U.S. Tags ‘Lord of the Skies’ as Mexico’s Drug Kingpin : Crime: Alleged trafficker remains rich--and free--because he’s meticulous and elusive, police say.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The hit on Amado Carrillo Fuentes happened so fast that no one at the Ochoa Bali Hai restaurant was sure at first what had just occurred.

Nearly a dozen assassins strode through the front door of the chic seafood restaurant carrying machine guns like briefcases, witnesses said. They moved toward the table where alleged drug baron Carrillo, his wife and their six children were finishing their meal. Then, just before 10 p.m., they opened fire.

Within seconds, they killed three of Carrillo’s bodyguards and an architect they apparently mistook for Carrillo. In the bloody confusion, Carrillo and his family dived under the table. Afterward, they walked out of the restaurant and simply drove away.

In the ensuing two years, Mexican and U.S. investigators have learned much about the target of the attack--and about the power and leadership of the increasingly sophisticated Mexican drug cartels that are flooding U.S. cities with cocaine and heroin.

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The hit men, Mexican investigators now say, were badge-carrying cops on the payroll of the nation’s most-wanted drug lord, alleged Gulf cartel chief Juan Garcia Abrego. Presumably, they were sent to assassinate his top rival.

But some of Carrillo’s bodyguards--five of whom escaped the hit--also carried police badges. And Mexican investigators believe that Carrillo has used his own police contacts, his considerable management skills and a sudden vacuum of power in Mexico’s drug gangs to take his ultimate revenge.

Today, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says, the 39-year-old Carrillo has emerged as Mexico’s No. 1 drug lord. With rival Garcia Abrego on the FBI’s most-wanted list and believed to be hiding in northern Mexico, the dynamic Carrillo and his Ciudad Juarez cartel have quietly inherited much of the Gulf cartel’s cocaine trade across the Texas border, say agents in both countries.

They say Carrillo has plugged into the California smuggling routes of two other Mexican drug groups, the Pacific and Sinaloa cartels, whose leaders have been arrested one by one in recent years. And, like Garcia Abrego before him, they say, Carrillo has built his empire on personal contacts in the Colombian cocaine cartels as well as on the protection he has bought from Mexican police and politicians.

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But the real secret to Carrillo’s success, investigators say, is that in recent years he has favored negotiation over assassination--effectively neutralizing the drug wars that have characterized Mexico’s narcotics underground in the past.

So effective is Carrillo’s style that U.S. agents now call his alleged empire “the Mexican federation” of drug cartels. They say this kingdom is a loosely knit, white-collar cooperative whose members share intelligence, equipment and smuggling routes the way they once exchanged gunfire.

An illustration of the federation’s effectiveness, some investigators believe, came two weeks ago, when U.S. officials say as much as 25 tons of South American cocaine with an estimated street value of $500 million entered Mexico within a 48-hour period. U.S. authorities said the drugs came on two French-built Caravelle passenger jets, modified to carry cargoes of as much as 20 tons of cocaine per trip.

At least one of those jets landed near the southern tip of Baja California, the traditional smuggling route of the Tijuana cartel. But law enforcement officials said it was Carrillo and his Juarez cartel that pioneered the use of large cargo jets and a network of clandestine airstrips throughout northern Mexico. And now U.S. investigators say the Nov. 4 shipments, both of which eluded the defenses of Mexico’s intensified war on narcotics smuggling, appeared to be the first concrete sign of Carrillo’s joint-operating agreements.

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Carrillo is known by the nickname “Lord of the Skies.” In 14 years, say U.S. drug enforcement agents and Mexican prosecutors, this man born to peasants has risen to head a vast organization that has smuggled billions of dollars’ worth of cocaine, heroin and marijuana into the United States. They say he uses an air cargo service that he owns under an alias, a business started in 1981 with a single Cessna that now includes Lear jets, Boeing 727s and French Caravelles.

From his base in the gritty town of Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, the stocky young entrepreneur has even won the grudging admiration of the agents who hunt him. They describe him as meticulous, cautious and elusive.

Carrillo’s style, the investigators say, has kept him a free man in addition to making him rich. He never carries guns or drugs. He has not spoken publicly about any of the allegations against him, and he has never served more than eight months in jail. He has never been convicted of a crime.

In August, 1989, Mexican federal agents arrested him at his $1.2-million Guadalajara home--one of dozens of properties they say he owns, mostly in northern Mexico. A spokesman for the attorney general’s office at that time called it “one of the most important arrests we have made, because of its close links to the [Colombian] Medellin cartel.”

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The government confiscated his Guadalajara house and six small aircraft in the raid. Documents recently leaked to the media indicate that Carrillo told investigators after his arrest that he had been smuggling marijuana into Texas across the Rio Grande and that he was using his air-taxi operation to serve the Juarez cartel.

But in April, 1990, a Mexico City judge set Carrillo free.

“Insufficient evidence” was the ruling, one that former Mexican investigator Eduardo Valle said could only have been ordered at the highest levels of the government--which Valle asserts have been infiltrated by the cartels.

Now a vocal crusader against the drug traffickers’ corruption of police and politicians, Valle concluded in a recent interview:

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“Amado [Carrillo] is committed to large-scale operations with tremendous protection--better even than Juan Garcia Abrego could get. His operations cannot be done without the direct complicity of the highest levels of protection from politicians and from the police and counter-narcotics agencies.

“He is a top-level narcotics trafficker. . . . The facts have shown us that he is the boss.”

A senior Drug Enforcement Administration official concurred, saying: “Amado Carrillo is most likely the No. 1 padron [boss] of the Mexican federation of drug cartels right now.”

Yet there are no criminal charges pending against Carrillo in Mexico, according to sources in the office of Atty. Gen. Antonio Lozano, the nation’s top law enforcement official.

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It is only in the United States that Carrillo is facing drug charges. He was indicted in Miami in 1988 for smuggling marijuana and cocaine, and again in Dallas in 1993 by a federal grand jury, which charged Carrillo and five others with heading a drug-running operation transporting “large quantities of cocaine . . . into the United States from Mexico.”

But there is no extensive testimony against Carrillo on the public record in U.S. courts, as there is on the higher-profile Garcia Abrego. There are no “wanted” posters bearing Carrillo’s photo in post offices throughout the United States, and no $2-million reward--the going rate from the U.S. government for information leading to Garcia Abrego’s capture.

U.S. drug enforcement agents concede that they have made little progress in dismantling Carrillo’s network in the United States--again, in stark contrast to their efforts against Garcia Abrego’s cartel, which has lost several dozen key operatives to U.S. prisons and the witness-protection program.

And the federal indictment against Carrillo in Dallas runs just four pages--with his first name misspelled--while the Garcia Abrego indictment runs nearly 30 pages and documents dates and times when he and his agents allegedly moved tons of cocaine into Texas and millions of dollars back into Mexico.

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Unlike Garcia Abrego--who relatives say inherited his smuggling operation in the Mexican border town of Matamoros as a gift from his uncle--Carrillo quietly assumed control of the Juarez cartel, Mexican investigators say, after his predecessor’s funeral in April, 1993.

The Juarez cartel’s fallen chief, Rafael Aguilar Guajardo, had been emblematic of the nexus between the cartels and Mexican law enforcement agencies. Aguilar was both a former top federal police commander and, until he was riddled with rifle fire by unknown assailants in Cancun, was also the Juarez cartel boss, Mexican investigators said.

“The king has died,” Mexico’s usually staid economic daily, El Financiero, declared in a recent report on Carrillo’s rise, “and another--perhaps more powerful than his predecessor--has taken the staff of power. Amado Carrillo finally has arrived.”

From the start, Carrillo, who was born in a small mountain village in the state of Sinaloa, eschewed the cartel’s shiny-limousine look--which made its final appearance at Aguilar’s funeral, where dozens of late-model Lincolns and Cadillacs took mourners to pay their respects.

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U.S. and Mexican officials say Carrillo is rarely seen in public today. And when he is, said one U.S. intelligence official, he’s surrounded by “at least a dozen Mexican federal police agents” working as his bodyguards.

“Amado is careful. He’s meticulous. And he’s learned that when it comes to dealing with the other cartels, working together is better than killing each other,” the intelligence official said. “We believe he also maintains the best contacts of all the Mexican cartels with their Colombian suppliers. The Colombians like his style. They like things quiet.

“And now, with the Medellin cartel long gone [and] almost all the leaders of the Cali cartel in jail, there is a real fear that Carrillo could quietly inherit it all.”

Several U.S. drug enforcement officials concede that Carrillo has become so powerful that an arrest of even such a trophy as Garcia Abrego would now be largely symbolic. They said they are hoping the elusive Carrillo will cross the border and make a mistake.

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“Now we’re just hoping that someday he messes up,” said Assistant U.S. Atty. Mike Snipes, the chief prosecutor in the case against Carrillo in Dallas.

“Maybe he runs a red light and gets pulled over for a traffic ticket.”


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