Mexican Official Says Tijuana, Gulf Cartels Have United

Times Staff Writer

Once Mexico's deadliest drug trafficker, the weakened Arellano Felix cartel of Tijuana has merged with another gang in a desperate bid for survival, the country's narcotics prosecutor said Thursday.

Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, deputy attorney general for organized crime, said recent intelligence showed that the Tijuana cartel had merged with the so-called Gulf cartel, led by Osiel Cardenas, to fend off usurpers. The main threat is from a Sinaloa state-based conglomerate headed by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada.

He said the restructuring of Mexico's cartels comes amid almost daily drug-related murders from Cancun, an entry point for Colombian cocaine, to Reynosa and Tijuana, border transshipment centers.

The recent violence is a sign that efforts by the United States and Mexico to destroy the cartels is working, Vasconcelos said.

"When the groups lose their leaders, they feel internal and external pressures. The same members begin to fight among themselves for leadership, and that leads to violence," Vasconcelos said.

He said proof of the merger included intelligence showing that Cardenas, who has been in jail since January 2003, recently lent $100,000 to Benjamin Arellano Felix.

On New Year's Eve, Guzman's brother Arturo Guzman Loera was shot dead in La Palma prison, the third Guzman associate killed last year inside Mexico's highest-security prison. Vasconcelos told reporters that he thought the killing had been ordered by the Arellano Felix organization.

That raises the possibility that the slaying of Guzman Loera was in revenge for the killing of top Tijuana cartel enforcer Ramon Arellano Felix in Mazatlan in February 2002. U.S. drug enforcement officials at the time described Ramon's killing as an execution carried out by police controlled by the Zambada organization.

Benjamin Arellano Felix, Ramon's brother, was arrested in March 2002 and has spent most of the time since as an inmate at La Palma.

Vasconcelos said cartel leaders continued to manage their organizations from prison.

Mexican officials said another sign of inter-cartel cooperation was that the so-called Zetas, specially trained anti-narcotics troops who joined the Gulf cartel as enforcers, were believed to have acted as hired killers for the Arellano Felix group.

Baja California state prosecutors have said they believe a Zeta member may have killed Francisco J. Ortiz Franco, an editor at a crusading newsweekly in Tijuana, in June.

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