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Battle Over Drug Cartel Follows Death of Its ‘Lord’

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

They called him the “Lord of the Skies,” and his cocaine-smuggling empire ranged from the drug laboratories of Colombia to the streets and stash houses of Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, authorities say.

Amado Carrillo Fuentes, whose Juarez drug cartel is considered the most powerful in Mexico, died July 4 after extensive plastic surgery. Now his vast empire is up for grabs--the prize in a potentially bloody power struggle among the rival cartels and key lieutenants that the 41-year-old drug lord left behind.

State authorities in Ciudad Juarez, the border town that was Carrillo’s base, suspect that a bloody turf war may already have begun: Five drug-related slayings since the drug lord’s death. Among those killings was a July 19 hit on Juan Eugenio “The Genius” Rosales, a Juarez cartel lieutenant who was gunned down in his luxury home.

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The state prosecutor’s office calls the recent gangland-style killings “the settling of accounts” among the region’s drug traffickers “in a fight for the position that Amado Carrillo had.” Other law enforcement sources suspect that the murders are a prelude to an all-out war between Carrillo’s organization and the rival Tijuana cartel, which is reportedly run by five Arellano Felix brothers who control smuggling routes into Southern California.

Drug enforcement officials on both sides of the border see the looming narcotics war as a golden opportunity to break up an operation so formidable that Colombian intelligence officials recently said it had eclipsed the power of the Cali and Medellin cartels.

“At the moment, we feel the Juarez cartel is disjointed. It has no head,” said prosecutor Mariano Herran Salvatti, chief of Mexico’s federal drug enforcement agency.

“What we have to do is look at the next tier of his organization’s hierarchy and go after them,” said James Milford, acting deputy director of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, who said there are still tons of cocaine in the Juarez pipeline. “Losing Amado Carrillo is not going to have any effect until you move in on the next rung of the hierarchy.”

At the top of that next tier now, U.S. and Mexican anti-drug agents agreed, are the Brother, the Blond and Blue.

The Brother is Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, 36, who was indicted in 1993 along with his older sibling in Dallas--one of three U.S. indictments pending against the elder Carrillo when he died. The DEA identified Vicente Carrillo as “an active member” of the cartel who “allegedly has been involved in receiving cocaine-laden aircraft from Colombia, overseeing stash sites and arranging transportation to the distribution sites,” according to a DEA report on Mexico’s top drug dealers published in May.

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Herran said Vicente Carrillo “represents an important group” within the cartel, but Milford added, “Vicente just doesn’t have the same type of leadership traits. . . . He’s just not a clear heir apparent.”

“Blue” is the nickname of Juan Jose Esparragoza Moreno, 48, another key Carrillo lieutenant, who was arrested by Mexican authorities in 1986 for cocaine trafficking, sentenced to seven years in prison and released in 1990. Esparragoza is not wanted in the United States, but Herran identified him as an important money launderer for the Juarez cartel and a clear heir apparent.

The Blond is Eduardo Gonzalez Quirarte, who was identified by Mexican prosecutors and military investigators as the alleged bag man who paid off Mexico’s former top anti-drug czar, Gen. Jose de Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo. Quirarte arranged a luxury apartment and other bribes for Gutierrez in exchange for federal protection of the Juarez cartel before the general’s arrest in February, according to the criminal cases pending against Gutierrez here.

Bribes were not the only means by which Carrillo’s cartel grew into a multibillion-dollar business.

Testimony in Miami federal court last week from the chief accountant of Colombia’s Cali cartel showed that Carrillo and Cali chiefs Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela joined forces in 1993, coordinating shipments involving many tons of cocaine on converted Boeing 727s into clandestine Mexican landing strips, then by land into the United States. The two cartels also set up sophisticated intercontinental communications, according to former accountant Guillermo Pallomari.

After the Rodriguez Orejuelas’ 1995 arrest in Colombia, Carrillo’s cartel grew exponentially. His representatives started dealing directly with cocaine producers in Colombia and even cutting into wholesale cocaine distribution in the traditional Colombian stronghold of New York City, which DEA officials identify as the world’s largest cocaine market.

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“Today, Colombian organizations depend on the Mexicans to get 60% to 70% of their drugs into the States, and the Mexicans have moved from being simple intermediaries to the owners of the trade,” said a senior Colombian intelligence source who asked not to be named.

A dramatic example came in March, when Mexican drug dealers who now are identified as members of the Juarez cartel shipped nearly 2 tons of cocaine from the Texas border into the heart of New York’s borough of Queens. The shipment arrived in a tractor trailer, packed inside 60,000 pounds of Mexican carrots.

Counter-narcotics agents using wiretaps and undercover surveillance seized the shipment, and a New York state grand jury indicted nine alleged smugglers--all of them Mexicans whom the DEA has linked to the Juarez cartel.

“The significance of this case is that the Mexicans, over the period of 1993 to 1997, have expanded their trafficking organization and structure from the places where they felt comfortable--the border, Los Angeles, Houston and Chicago--into the strongholds of the Medellin and Cali cartels,” said the DEA’s Milford.

“They have taken a larger piece of the distribution network and, in many ways, have re-created the Colombian’s cell structure--distribution groups that are self-contained units and isolated from one another.”

Dismantling as deeply rooted and widespread an organization as the Juarez cartel, Milford and Herran conceded, will be difficult, even with Carrillo gone.

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“I think that undoubtedly, any criminal organization appears to be one of these multiheaded Hydras,” Herran said. “But I believe that in this case [of the Juarez cartel], there [was] a principal head. And if you accept mythology, it means that when you take the principal head, little by little the other heads must fall.”

Times staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan in Mexico City and special correspondent Steven Ambrus in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.

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