Deadly Messages to Mexico

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Their killings were surgical, their brutality unspeakable, and their death toll on California's doorstep runs well into the hundreds. Many of their victims were symbolic, chosen for the message their slayings would send, and by all official accounts, the killing was fun.

One victim was Jose "Pepe" Patino Moreno, a notably honest man who worked amid the corruption of Mexico's counternarcotics squads. The fearless, soft-spoken prosecutor who had won rare trust from U.S. law enforcement was found in a steep ravine on the road to Tecate. His head had been crushed by an industrial press; his 47-year-old body was so broken it felt like a bag of ice cubes when they lifted it.

The message: No one is beyond the reach of the Arellano Felix gang.

Alejandro Hodoyan has never been found. His mother watched helplessly as her eldest son was kidnapped at gunpoint in broad daylight in downtown Tijuana five years ago. She had been driving him to San Diego, where Hodoyan was to enter the U.S. federal witness-protection program.

The message: Don't snitch on the Arellano Felix brothers.

Known as the Arellano Felix Organization, Mexico's most powerful drug gang has for more than a decade used violence and money to maintain control of the lucrative Baja peninsula drug-smuggling corridor, through which a fourth of the cocaine consumed in the United States is funneled. A federal grand jury indictment filed in November 1999 called the gang a violent criminal enterprise run by two racketeering brothers.

Other documents and sources uncovered by The Times in recent weeks provide a rare inside look at the cartel's brutality, its effectiveness and the ruthlessness of its leaders.

That portrait comes amid new hope that recent setbacks suffered by the gang may mean its era of terror is nearing an end.

Ramon Arellano Felix, the enforcer who was on the FBI's 10 most wanted list, is dead, killed in a February shootout with police in Mazatlan. Brother Benjamin, the "chairman of the board," was arrested in Puebla weeks later.

Yet the image the Arellano Felixes carved out for themselves remains so fearsome that, even now, few people seem willing to speak out against them.

U.S. officials, who are preparing a case to extradite Benjamin, insist they have secret witnesses.

"We have spent millions of dollars to protect witnesses against the Arellano Felix Organization," said Errol J. Chavez, head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's San Diego office since 1997. "And they're hidden throughout the United States. They're not all dead or afraid to talk."

As yet, though, none have done so publicly, despite dozens of arrests and prosecutions of the cartel's drug mules, midlevel assassins and top lieutenants.

But the stories of the victims--pieced together from law enforcement sources, official records north and south of the border and the remembrances of family and friends--testify not only to the cartel's inner workings but also to its corrosion of Mexican life.

"It's difficult to see any limit to the evil," said Patino's sister, Maria Guadalupe Patino Moreno.

The official list of victims is so lengthy that the members of a multi-agency U.S. task force set up to target the organization in the mid-1990s finally gave up on a color-coded "Dead Chart" they had designed. They had documented about 300 victims when they stopped counting a few years ago. Some U.S. agents now put the toll as high as 1,000.

Among the dead are nearly two dozen Mexican law enforcement officials, many of them corrupted by an estimated $1 million a week in bribes the cartel spread around under a policy of plata o plomo--"silver or lead"--according to former DEA chief Thomas A. Constantine.

A handful were honest police officers or prosecutors, men such as Patino and Baja California state prosecutor Hodin Gutierrez Rico, who was shot more than 120 times in front of his family and then run over repeatedly by a van.

There were rival, upstart drug traffickers who failed to pay the Arellano Felixes for transit rights through the Baja corridor. Authorities say the cartel punished one such group in Ensenada in September 1998 by lining up 18 men, women and children and executing them one by one.

Other victims were from the gang's own ranks--suspected embezzlers or potential informants, cartel lawyers who knew too much, even family.

"It's not just to kill someone. It's terrorism," said William Gore, who heads the FBI's San Diego office. "It's to intimidate an entire population.... And that's how they stayed in power so long."

Added Don Thornhill, a DEA veteran of the war on the Arellano Felixes based in San Diego: "If you know your kids are going to get killed, your mother, your wife, that helps keep people in line."

Here, based on official documents and sources, is the story of two of the victims: one an insider who produced the only portrait on record of the family's methods and moods, the other an outsider, a cartel hunter whose killing was a catalytic event, several law enforcement officials say, that paved the way for Benjamin's capture and Ramon's death.

"To kill is a party. It's fun. No remorse or anything. They smile after an assassination, and they go eat a lobster in Rosarito. Pure lawlessness. That's what this thing is."

The words are Alejandro Hodoyan's, describing the network of assassins loyal to Ramon Arellano Felix. His videotaped comments--made in 1996, after weeks of torture by the Mexican military, Hodoyan later alleged--live on, five years after Hodoyan himself vanished.

U.S. and Mexican officials insist that Hodoyan's brother, Alfredo, was among the Arellano Felix assassins--a young man from a well-off Tijuana family who was one of the so-called Narco Juniors.

Alfredo, who was extradited from San Diego in 1999, is on trial now in Mexico City in the killing of a corrupt federal police commander, Ernesto Ibarra Santes, who allegedly was slain because of his loyalty to a rival cartel. Ibarra died in early September 1996, the day after Alejandro Hodoyan was picked up by a military counternarcotics squad.

Military authorities held Alejandro for months until, after what he later described as constant beatings in documents on file in San Diego federal court, he agreed to provide an insider's view of the organization.

Alejandro, a native of San Diego and captain of his Tijuana high school basketball team, had been friends with Ramon and his top assassins since they were kids, he said. But throughout months of interrogation, Hodoyan insisted that he was never directly involved in the cartel's multi-ton drug deals or its many killings.

Rather, he cast himself as something of a confessor. The gang leaders and their lieutenants came to his apartment, he told investigators. They drank beer. And they spun out story after story of how they did business.

Hodoyan's confessions--some on file in U.S. federal court and the rest contained in a bootleg copy of his videotaped statement (the official copy remains under federal court seal)--reveal details of the cartel and its leaders.

He describes how the group's killing of Guadalajara's Roman Catholic cardinal, Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo, in 1993 was a rare error, how Ramon and his assassins mistook the prelate for a rival drug lord who had tried to kill the brothers at a Puerto Vallarta discotheque the previous year.

The cardinal's killing catapulted the brothers into the public eye in Mexico and led to the jailing of Francisco, the eldest, the following year.

Hodoyan also explained the brothers' Mafia-esque hold on their followers.

"The Arellanos are very different with their own people," he told investigators. "The Arellanos pay them with favors.... They give them houses, they give them cars. If I have a problem, if one of their people gets put in jail and he has no money, they go and get him a lawyer, they pay for whatever is necessary.

"If you have a relative in the hospital, they pay for whatever is necessary. A debt, if you're going to lose your house, they give you money."

As for the drugs--federal investigators say the cartel has moved hundreds of thousands of pounds of cocaine and marijuana into the U.S. and hundreds of millions of dollars back--Hodoyan detailed the trafficking routes.

And of Ramon, Hodoyan said: "Where there is danger, Ramon puts himself there. He always has to be doing something. In 1989 or 1990, we were on a corner in Tijuana with nothing to do, and he tells us: 'We are going to kill someone. Who has a beef with someone?'

"Cars passed by, and he asked us [to point out] whoever we knew. Whoever got pointed out showed up dead in a week. Nothing more than to kill."

In early 1997, Mexican officials turned Hodoyan over to U.S. authorities in San Diego, where a newly formed task force was targeting the cartel as never before. He gave a brief statement to the DEA, and Assistant U.S. Atty. Gonzalo Curiel offered to put him in the federal witness-protection program on the spot.

Hodoyan balked, fearing he would never again see his wife, two daughters and an extended family, relatives now say. He returned to Tijuana to think it over. At the end of a long family meeting on March 4, 1997, Hodoyan decided to accept the U.S. prosecutors' offer. The following day, he was kidnapped.

"He didn't accept the witness protection when we offered it," Curiel recalled. "And that was unfortunate, because we had real-time information that he was going to be abducted and killed by the Arellano Felix Organization"--warnings Curiel said were passed on to Hodoyan.

Thirty-five years old when he vanished, Hodoyan became one of the 500 or so men and women with ties to the drug trade who human rights activists in Tijuana say have gone missing since 1994.

Alejandro's mother isn't convinced her son is dead.

Cristina Palacios Roji Hodoyan, who has spent years trying to find out if he is actually being held somewhere as a protected future witness, declined to talk about the case. She said her lawyer told her that to do so could influence the outcome of her other son's ongoing murder trial.

But she added: "I just want someone to say what happened to my son. I don't think it's fair for my two granddaughters to have that limbo, to grow up not knowing whether they have a father or not.

"And for me, when I go to church, I don't know whether to pray for Alejandro's soul or to pray for him."

Just a few weeks before Pepe Patino crossed the border into Mexico for the last time in April 2000 at California's Otay Mesa border station, a colleague in Mexico's attorney general's office took him aside.

"Things are critical," fellow prosecutor Samuel Gonzalez Ruiz told Patino. "You are not covering yourself well. You are here alone without enough people to fight this cartel. You should be thinking about quitting this job and making a change.

Patino replied: "No. This is my job. I like it. And I'll take the risks."

Gonzalez recalled the conversation in a recent telephone interview from Vienna, where he now serves on a U.N. transnational organized-crime task force.

Chief of the Mexican government's organized-crime unit at the time, Gonzalez had assigned Patino to help lead the investigation into the Arellano Felix brothers in 1993, immediately after Cardinal Posadas' killing.

Patino, a Mexican-trained lawyer of humble roots, was known for his white shirts, dark "Blues Brothers" suits, gentle manner and willingness to take on any assignment. His lifestyle was built solely on a Mexican government paycheck and showed not even a hint of corruption.

In time, Patino and his group would arrest Francisco, the eldest brother, now serving eight years in prison for his involvement in the cardinal's murder. Benjamin and Ramon would be indicted in the U.S. on racketeering charges alleging they headed a criminal enterprise specializing in drug trafficking, money laundering and murder. Ramon would be placed on the FBI's most wanted list--alongside Osama bin Laden.

Through those years, Patino proved himself tough, fearless and honest. In 1998, an unarmed Patino stood down more than 70 heavily armed, crooked cops protecting drug lords in Cancun. He was instrumental in the arrest of top Arellano Felix henchmen, who were later released by a corrupt Mexican judiciary.

"He was a very simple man, very honorable. He loved his work very much. When I told him to be careful, he would always say, 'Don't worry, daughter, I'm well accompanied.' But he wasn't," said his widow, Maria de Lourdes, from her home in a working-class Mexico City barrio.

When the DEA, FBI and U.S. attorney's office in San Diego agreed to provide Patino with a safe house and sensitive drug intelligence information in January 2000, it marked the beginning of a new era of bilateral cooperation that continues today.

They saw Patino as someone they could trust.

The backdrop was years of bitter betrayal and suspicion between U.S. and Mexican drug investigators. By then, U.S. officials presumed that all local, state and federal police in Tijuana had been corrupted--if not by the Arellano Felixes then by rival cartels. And Mexican officials believed that American investigators routinely trampled on Mexican sovereignty.

When Patino arrived on the scene, former U.S. Atty. Charles G. La Bella recalled, "we had a crucible. We had critical mass.

"Pepe was a very quiet man, but he was an extremely effective man," said La Bella, who headed the criminal division of the U.S. attorney's office in San Diego in the late 1990s.

"He was a very forceful interviewer. He was not averse to knocking some heads. He was a guy who'd throw around drug dealers in their jail cell, knowing they could hurt him on the outside.

"He sent them the message he didn't fear them or their organization."

On April 10, 2000, Patino's Chevy Lumina sedan was commandeered shortly after crossing into Mexico from the U.S. Local police insisted for nearly a week that what happened to it was just a road accident, but an autopsy of Patino later showed that he, like the two slain Mexican federal officers found with him, had been so badly tortured that most of his bones were broken before he died.

"I don't think it was so much to send the message that they can kill cops and prosecutors as it was to find out what he knew," recalled San Diego FBI chief Gore. "I read the autopsy, and there's no doubt, whatever Pepe Patino knew, they knew."

Patino's killing sent clear messages nonetheless.

"It sent me a very strong message that the cartels had more influence than we recognized," said DEA chief Chavez, adding that he is convinced Patino's assassins knew of his every move through high-level leaks within the Mexican attorney general's office.

"It was a message to Mexico City: Don't come into our area and screw with us. And the message to me was that they were so influential, that they had so much control and that they were so daring that they could go after that level."

Former prosecutor La Bella and his successor, San Diego U.S. Atty. Patrick K. O'Toole, said Patino's death also was a watershed that helped lead to Benjamin Arellano Felix's recent capture--and to the current high level of U.S.-Mexican cooperation in the drug war.

"It was a turning point," La Bella said. "I think it had the effect of galvanizing U.S. law enforcement. It convinced them that this was a war--a war we couldn't lose--and I think the Mexicans realized that this was a line in the sand."

Despite the significance of Patino's death, it took 16 months for his widow and four children to begin receiving his pension, which amounts to a mere 12% of the $80,000 hazardous duty pay he was earning at the time of his death.

His eldest daughter, Cristina, says she receives death threats from someone inside law enforcement aiming to discourage the family from seeking his killers.

Indeed, despite their recent successes against the two top Arellano Felix brothers and an apparent resolve to target the cartel after Patino's death, Mexican authorities have yet to charge anyone specifically with his killing.

And that too bears a message.

"It's demoralizing for other prosecutors when they see that happen to the Patinos, to be mistreated by their own government," said Jose Luis Perez Canchola, a former Baja California state attorney general for human rights based in Tijuana.

A senior U.S. law enforcement official said: "If that happened to a U.S. law enforcement officer, we'd leave no stone unturned--legal or illegal--to find out who did it.

"The real problem is cultural. In Mexico, people don't think people get killed for doing the right thing."

Fineman reported from Tijuana and San Diego and Kraul from Mexico City.

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