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U.S. Arrests Reputed Chief of Drug Cartel

Times Staff Writers

The alleged leader of a violent Tijuana crime family accused of smuggling hundreds of tons of cocaine and marijuana into the United States was captured by the U.S. Coast Guard while deep-sea fishing off the southern tip of Baja California, officials said Wednesday.

Francisco Javier Arellano Felix, 36, nicknamed “the Wildcat,” was taken into custody aboard a U.S.-registered boat, the Dock Holiday, in international waters about 15 miles off the Baja peninsula, U.S. authorities said. He was traveling under an alias but acknowledged his identity to his captors, officials said.

The arrest was based on a 2003 U.S. indictment that charged him with conspiracy, smuggling and murder. A $5-million bounty had been offered for his capture as the reputed leader of the Arellano Felix organization.

At its height in the late 1990s, the cartel was believed to be responsible for supplying nearly half the cocaine sold in the United States.

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U.S. and Mexican authorities blame the cartel for at least a score of slayings of police officers, journalists and rivals, as well as the accidental killing of Roman Catholic Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo at the Guadalajara airport in 1993.

Authorities say the Arellano Felix gang, though weakened by the killing of one brother and the imprisonment of another, remains one of Mexico’s largest drug-smuggling organizations since joining forces last year with the Gulf cartel.

Prosecutors say the gang hired assassins to kidnap, torture and kill adversaries in a struggle to dominate lucrative smuggling routes that link Mexico and California.

“The Arellano Felix organization is the largest and most violent drug-trafficking operation in the Tijuana, Baja California, area,” U.S. Deputy Atty. Gen. Paul J. McNulty said at a Washington news conference where the arrests were announced.

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Acting on a tip, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration asked Coast Guard officers to board the Dock Holiday on Monday, McNulty said. Seven other adults and three juveniles were also taken into custody, he said.

U.S. authorities had hoped to delay announcement of the arrests until they brought Arellano Felix to San Diego today, but Mexican news reports surfaced Wednesday.

“This was a perfectly planned and perfectly executed operation,” said U.S. Atty. Carol C. Lam of San Diego, whose office filed the 2003 indictment. Authorities gave no details of how they knew about the fishing trip or what was found aboard the vessel. Mexican government officials declined to comment.

The indictment against Arellano Felix “specifies his role in the enterprise as the one who participated in the most major decisions,” McNulty said.

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Authorities said Arellano Felix began working for the cartel when he was 22. He faces life in prison if convicted on charges related to the cartel’s alleged purchase of tons of cocaine from Colombia that was smuggled into California through Mexico via tunnels, vehicles, aircraft and backpacks beginning in 1986. The cartel is accused of trading money and guns for cocaine from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a leftist rebel group.

Arellano Felix is “one of the 45 most notorious, most wanted drug traffickers in the world,” said Michael Braun, the DEA’s assistant administrator for operations in Washington. The government is seeking forfeitures from him of nearly $290 million.

Arellano Felix and the cartel are accused of 20 homicides in the U.S. and Mexico, McNulty said, and allegedly “recruited, trained and armed groups of bodyguards and assassins” to carry out their day-to-day work. Francisco J. Ortiz Franco, an editor at Tijuana’s crusading weekly newspaper Zeta, was killed two years ago after a series of stories on the cartel.

The Tijuana-based group is accused of smuggling heroin and methamphetamine, and authorities believe it built an elaborate 2,400-foot tunnel that crossed the U.S. border to a San Diego-area warehouse. The tunnel was discovered in January.

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With the cartel’s power diminished, Mexican officials are bracing for rival organizations to seek a takeover of the Tijuana and Mexicali smuggling corridors.

Hundreds of killings in Mexico in the last year are linked to the war between the Gulf cartel -- now allied with Arellano Felix -- and a Sinaloa-based group headed by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada.

At stake are Mexico’s most lucrative trans-border smuggling routes to Texas, California and Arizona.

The country’s brutal drug war has increasingly been marked by the use of hand grenades, large-caliber assault weapons and paramilitary-style attacks. Police and prosecutors are not simply killed, they are beheaded and put on public display.

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In May, three men with AK-47s walked into the federal attorney general’s office in Tijuana, killed an agent and wounded another.

Last year, a police chief in Nuevo Laredo, on the border with Texas, was slain hours after he took office.

Tijuana Mayor Jorge Hank Rhon said through a spokesman that the arrest of the youngest Arellano Felix brother was good news but that the city should expect killings to follow.

“Lamentably, when this happens, waves of violence hit the city,” the spokesman said.

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The cartel began losing its foothold after police killed Ramon Arellano Felix in February 2002.

Weeks later, the family’s eldest brother and alleged mastermind, Benjamin, was arrested and sent to the La Palma maximum-security prison.

There, Mexican prosecutors say, Benjamin Arellano Felix formed an alliance with Osiel Cardenas of the Gulf cartel, after a series of key arrests and pressure from U.S. and Mexican law enforcement began to chip away at the Tijuana group.

Drug investigators said Javier didn’t enjoy the legendary status of Benjamin and Ramon, who reigned during the peak years. He kept a low profile in Tijuana, where he resided in one of several safe houses.

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Unlike other major cartel figures, he rarely appeared in bars or restaurants, and when he did travel in the gritty border city, he was accompanied by heavily armed guards.

Javier Arellano Felix may have presided over a declining empire, but the cartel still enjoyed protection from law enforcement, U.S. authorities and border experts say. Many found it unsurprising that he was arrested outside Tijuana. His brothers also met with trouble after leaving the city -- Ramon was slain in Mazatlan and Benjamin was arrested near Mexico City.

“I don’t think [Javier] was comfortable outside Tijuana.... He knew he was being hunted,” said John Kirby, the former federal prosecutor who co-wrote the 2003 indictment.

Though this latest arrest is significant, its immediate effect on either the cartel or the flow of illegal drugs is unclear.

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One brother, Eduardo, remains at large. He, too, has a $5-million bounty on his head.

“Anytime you have arrests like this, it is certainly going to disrupt the organization,” said Timothy Coughlin, chief of the U.S. attorney’s narcotics unit in San Diego.

“Whether this throws them into chaos, or whether they’ll get into a fight with another cartel, those are things we’ll know in time.”

Enriquez reported from Mexico City and Krikorian from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Richard Marosi in Tijuana contributed to this report.

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