Officials Link Ensenada Massacre to Drug Feud

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The principal target of the massacre that left 18 people dead just outside this Baja California resort was a known drug gang leader, and the killings were probably the result of a feud between drug traffickers, Mexican officials said Friday.

Fermin Castro, also known to authorities as "the Ice Man," was critically wounded in Thursday's predawn attack, in which Castro and 20 members of his extended family, including eight children, were dragged from their beds and shot execution-style.

Castro led one of six drug trafficking gangs linked to the infamous Arellano Felix drug cartel in the Ensenada area, according to Mexican federal government documents shown to reporters Friday by Jesus Blancornelas, editor of the Tijuana weekly news magazine Zeta.

Baja prosecutors said at a news conference Friday afternoon that Castro, 38, was involved in drug running between Ensenada and drop-off points across the border. They declined, however, to confirm any link between Castro and the Arellano Felix cartel.

Witnesses to the massacre in El Sauzal, a small farm town outside Ensenada, "indicate that there were problems between Mr. Castro and other people over the question of drugs," said Marco Antonio de la Fuente Villarreal, attorney general for the northern Baja region.

Authorities said a brother-in-law of Castro who was killed in Thursday's attack also was involved in drug trafficking. They identified him as Francisco Javier Flores Altamirano, 30.

Authorities have said that if the slayings were related to drugs, they breached an "unwritten code" among the drug cartels that calls for sparing the lives of children.

De la Fuente said informants led authorities investigating the massacre to a location in the Baja community of Tecate, where officers recovered 100 bags of marijuana and 15 weapons, including pistols and one AK-47 assault rifle.

Ten people were detained in Tecate for questioning, but were not arrested. Forensics experts will test the weapons to see if they were used in Thursday's killings, officials said.

Officials also revealed that Castro was tortured before he was shot. Castro remained in a coma Friday, under heavy guard at a local hospital.

Several Mexican newspapers speculated that a rivalry between the Arellano Felix gang and new challengers expanding their interests in Baja California may be behind the crime.

New Round of Violence Feared

Much of the conjecture centered on the Arellano Felix cartel's chief lieutenant in the Ensenada area, Ismael Higuera Guerrero, known locally as "El Mayel." Castro worked under Higuera's supervision, according to the government documents produced by editor Blancornelas, who was critically wounded last year in an ambush believed to have been orchestrated by the Arellano Felix cartel.

Some observers fear that the killings might mark the beginning of a new and bloody period of Baja California's drug wars, which have claimed the lives of a long line of drug kingpins, police officers and government prosecutors.

"If this was not the Arellanos, it was a cartel of equal power," said Tijuana human rights activist Victor Clark. "If this is an outside group that has come to strike out against the Arellanos, this means they are weakening. The killers must be from a very important cartel."

The Arellano Felix clan has reportedly moved much of its personnel away from Tijuana as law enforcement authorities have mounted crackdowns in the border city. The group's tentacles are believed to have spread down the coast to Ensenada and east to Mexicali.

Castro has been linked in Tijuana news reports to marijuana production in Valle de Trinidad, southeast of Ensenada, where he is believed to have been born on an Indian reservation known as Santa Catarina. According to an account in Zeta, Castro's gang was named after the reservation.

On Friday morning, at the scene of the massacre, the whinnying of Castro's prized horses was the only sound that punctuated the air as investigators continued to pore over the bloodstained patio of his farming compound.

Children's clothing still hung from laundry lines at the site where the members of three families had been yanked from their beds and shot in Baja California's worst crime.

Castro, who raised livestock and organized rodeos, lived with his extended family on a ranch compound in the El Sauzal de Rodriguez community north of Ensenada.

Key Victim Is Closely Guarded

Friday in Ensenada, Mexican soldiers and police kept a strict watch outside Castro's hospital room. Besides Castro, the survivors are 12-year-old Mario Alberto Flores, who suffered unspecified but serious injuries, and Viviana Flores, 15, who apparently escaped unharmed. Officials at first had said that she remained safe by hiding under a bed. But authorities Friday said she had hidden between a wardrobe and a bureau in her bedroom and later had driven the wounded boy to safety.

Gen. Jose Luis Chavez Garcia, the top federal prosecutor in Baja, said at the news conference that authorities were preparing a search warrant for the ranch when they were overtaken by events.

Personal vengeance was being examined as a possible motive for the killings, in a nation where inter-family enmities sometimes simmer for years before erupting into violence, especially in the countryside.

Many see the fingerprints of the drug trade in both the style of the attack--which seemed to involve well-trained and cold-blooded assassins--and the high-powered weapons employed. The killers did most of their damage with AK-47s, known here as cuernos de chivos (goat horns) because of their distinctive curved magazines. The weapons are a favorite among drug traffickers.

About a dozen assailants are believed to have sprayed the victims with gunfire as they lay face-down on a concrete patio after having been roused from their sleep. Authorities found almost 100 spent shells at the gruesome scene.

Journalists who toured the grounds late Friday encountered a tableau of grim contrasts: the strewn toys of children and a trail of bloody footprints believed to have been made by Castro after he was first wounded in his house. He later was shot with the others outdoors.

A U.S. drug enforcement agent said that while U.S. officials are still trying to piece together the story behind the massacre, they are leaning toward the theory that it was an Arellano Felix hit, in part because of the brutality.

The Arellanos, considered Mexico's most vicious cartel, have been known to break with the so-called law of the Mafia that declares family members immune to such violence.

Arellano gunmen were blamed for the death of the wife and children of a rival drug lord. And in the last few years, they have been blamed for the murder of the elderly father and the wife of a witness who implicated the cartel in a series of crimes.

"They go a step further, like the Colombian cartels," the U.S. agent said. "But it's horrendous, so many at one time. That's barbaric, even by their standards."

A veteran U.S. anti-drug official echoed those sentiments. "You have [killings] here and there, but 21 people? It's like mixing up Jonestown, Waco and the Colombian cartels. . . . What are they trying to prove with this?"

Whatever the motive, the crime has deeply shaken people in this relatively quiet corner of Baja California, a place that, until now, has escaped the gangland-style killings of Tijuana.

'The People Who Did This Are Maniacs'

Just a quarter-mile up the hill from the scene of the massacre, Leticia Rodriguez had difficulty putting the scale of her loss into words. She was related to six of the dead.

"I'm terribly sad for what happened," she said as she hung laundry. "The people who did this are maniacs to have the kind of heart to kill in that way."

A few miles down the road near the bustling hotels and restaurants of Ensenada, businessmen who cater to Southern California tourists worried that reports of the savage attack could chase customers away.

"People will only remember the headlines, 'Massacre in Ensenada,' " said Lorenzo Scott, who runs an art gallery. "People who don't come down here enough to know better will stay away."

McDonnell reported from Tijuana, Ellingwood from Ensenada and Tobar from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Ann-Marie O'Connor and Tony Perry contributed to this story.

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Drug-Related Murders in Mexico

November 1997: Gunmen open fire on Jesus Blancornelas, editor of Zeta, a Tijuana news weekly that regularly covers the drug trade. Blancornelas is seriously wounded and his bodyguard is killed.

August 1997: In Ciudad Juarez, at least 17 gangland-style killings occur after the July 4 death of Amado Carrillo Fuentes, who ruled Mexico's premier narcotics-smuggling organization. Officials are uncertain whether the violence is related to incursions by rivals of Carrillo's cartel or an internal shake-up.

March 1997: Gunmen shoot the father and wife of Jesus Alberto Bayardo Robles in Tijuana. Bayardo, now in federal prison, had implicated the alleged leaders of a Tijuana cartel in crimes.

Tijuana police find the tortured body of Felipe de Jesus Equihua, a prominent ruling-party militant. Equihua had been close to a witness in the drug-related cases of Alfredo Hodoyan and Emilio Valdez Mainero, which were due to be heard in San Diego courts.

January 1997: Hodin Gutierrez Rico, a respected state prosecutor, is murdered. He had been conducting a yearlong probe of the April 1994 assassination of Jose Federico Benitez Lopez, a reform-minded Tijuana municipal police chief.

September 1996: Jorge Garcia Vargas, Tijuana district chief of the federal anti-narcotics agency, and three federal agents who served as his bodyguards, are found strangled.

After less than a month on the job, Cmdr. Ernesto Ibarra Santes, Baja director of the Federal Judicial Police, is gunned down along with three others.

Rafael Lopez Cruz, a state judicial police agent, is murdered. Lopez Cruz had complained of narcotics corruption in the ranks and had provided prosecutors and journalists with details on what he said were ties between judicial police and the Arellano Felix drug cartel.

August 1996: Veteran narcotics prosecutor Jesus Romero Magana is gunned down outside his home in Tijuana by killers he appears to have known.

March 1995: A gunman kills Jorge Alberto Duarte Castillo, director of the La Mesa state penitentiary. Investigators believe that inmate gangs may have ordered the murder as revenge for crackdowns on guns and drugs in the prison.

April 1994: Tijuana Municipal Police Chief Jose Federico Benitez Lopez is murdered. His death is officially attributed to drug traffickers.

May 1993: Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo and six others are killed in an airport ambush triggered by a dispute among warring drug cartels. Authorities believe the cardinal was a victim of mistaken identity in the attack.

Source: Los Angeles Times files

Compiled by Jacquelyn Cenacveira / Los Angeles Times

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