Mexican Police Arrest Alleged Drug Leader


In news some U.S. officials found extremely encouraging, Mexican authorities have reportedly arrested an alleged top lieutenant of the Tijuana drug cartel whom the Justice Department would like to extradite to the United States, senior U.S. law enforcement officials said Sunday.

Justice Department officials said Mexican authorities notified them Saturday night that Mexican police they had arrested Arturo Paez Martinez, an alleged ranking leader of one of Mexico’s most powerful and deadly drug trafficking organizations.

U.S. authorities say they immediately moved to unseal a U.S. indictment against Paez for drug conspiracy charges in California. Today, Justice Department officials in Washington will begin to prepare a request for his extradition, U.S. officials said.


Mexican federal spokesmen in Baja California and Mexico City had no immediate information.

“They have not notified us here,” said Carolina Nava Nava, a spokeswoman for the federal attorney general’s office in Mexico City. “We know nothing.”

The arrest would be the first significant action to emerge from a year of intense pressure on Mexican authorities--including the U.S. indictment of alleged kingpin Ramon Arellano Felix--to take action against the cartel, an unusually violent syndicate suspected of at least six slayings in California and dozens more in Mexico.


Some U.S. officials were openly heartened. “This is an important development. It sends a message loud and clear to drug traffickers that the days of impunity are numbered,” said one senior Justice Department official. “This is one of their number three or four guys. He is one of the major organizers of drug trafficking loads across the border.”

Others involved in U.S. anti-drug efforts were less optimistic.

“I’ll celebrate when he’s arraigned on an indictment on U.S. soil,” said one U.S. law enforcement veteran. “If he gets held by a Mexican court awaiting extradition, I think that would be pretty good.”

The tenure of the alleged Baja cartel overlords, the Arellano Felix brothers, has been the subject of dismay among U.S. officials in San Diego. In the past several years, 10 senior law enforcement officers from Baja have been gunned down in gangland-style killings, and U.S. informants have been tortured to death amid rampant reports that top Baja police were providing protection for kingpins and even escorts for drug killers.

One alleged drug lord built a glitzy mansion on the U.S.-Mexico border, in plain view of incensed U.S. officials who want him extradited to face charges in San Diego that he helped build an elaborate “narco-tunnel” to transport drugs under the border.

When alleged cartel members are arrested--as Francisco Arellano was in Tijuana in December 1993--there is often speculation that Mexican police are acting on behalf of a rival drug lord. The arrest of Mexico’s top anti-drug czar early this year, on charges that he was involved with a competitor of the Arellanos, reinforced such suspicions.

But this year, U.S. officials say, cross-border law enforcement cooperation has increased--though how much remains to be seen.

“This reminds us that we have to proceed on the border on the basis of a hard-headed partnership,” a senior U.S. official said. “We need to avoid falling into indulgent optimism or unbridled cynicism in our ability to work with the Mexicans. We just have too many important interests at stake.”


U.S. officials said they had no immediate details on the arrest, although one official had heard it took place in Tijuana. They said Mexican officials called their U.S. counterparts and asked whether there were any outstanding charges against Paez, triggering the unsealing of a San Diego indictment.

“The Mexicans are psyched,” a Justice Department official said. “You’ve got to give them credit.”

If Paez is extradited to the United States, he could potentially be a source of important information on the drug cartel. Providing information to U.S. authorities in hopes of a lighter sentence is a time-honored trade-off. The most important thing, U.S. officials say, is to get him to the United States.

“I don’t know if he is going to play ball,” a U.S. official said. “We’re going to ask for the extradition and see what happens.”