Reporting from San Diego and Mexico City -- The Mexican government Friday extradited to the United States drug kingpin Benjamin Arellano Felix, the former leader of one of Mexico's most feared and powerful organized crime groups, whose ruthless reign transformed northern Baja California into a major drug trafficking corridor into the U.S.
Arellano Felix, who had been incarcerated in a Mexican prison since his arrest in 2002, was flown to San Diego and transferred to the downtown Metropolitan Correctional Center, where he will be held under heightened security during court proceedings that are expected to last months, and possibly years.
The extradition marks the end of a long effort by U.S. authorities to get Arellano Felix into a U.S. courtroom. He faces racketeering and drug conspiracy charges as part of a San Diego federal grand jury indictment that has already led to the arrests and convictions of several of his brothers and associates from the cartel's heyday during the 1980s and '90s.
Arellano Felix, who headed the organization known as the Arellano Felix, or Tijuana cartel, was among the first of Mexico's modern organized crime bosses. With connections to Colombia, he and his brothers established a drug pipeline that funneled tons of cocaine and other drugs into California, according to the indictment.
Authorities allege the cartel generated hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, using the money to bribe Mexican military and law enforcement officials and to purchase weapons that enforcers would use to torture and kill enemies in Mexico and the San Diego area.
The effects of Arellano Felix's iron-fisted rule are felt to this day. Many families in Baja California are still searching for the whereabouts of people who disappeared during his years in power. The cartel popularized the use of chemicals to dispose of enemies, disintegrating bodies by dumping them into vats of lye and acid.
"The Arellano Felix organization has spread fear and violence on both sides of the border, and today's extradition is an important step forward in our effort to hold the alleged leaders of this criminal enterprise to account," said U.S. Assistant Atty. Gen. Lanny A. Breuer.
Many observers doubt the case will ever get to trial, noting that every other defendant has pleaded guilty. If he cooperates with prosecutors, Arellano Felix could shed light on the deaths of numerous potential witnesses and a crusading Mexican prosecutor whose head was crushed in an industrial press. He could also implicate people the cartel bribed, said John Kirby, a former federal prosecutor who worked on the case.
"It shows they're serious," Kirby said, referring to the administration of Mexican President Felipe Calderon. Arellano Felix "could spill the beans on everybody. He had dealings with the highest levels of government, and in the church, in the military."
The extradition comes at a time of tense relations between the U.S. and Mexico, strained in part by leaked diplomatic cables that contained pointed criticisms by U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Carlos Pascual of the Mexican government's drug-war efforts. Calderon complained vociferously about Pascual's assessments, and Pascual offered his resignation in March.
Samuel Gonzalez, a former top organized crime prosecutor, said the extradition came as U.S. and Mexican officials were meeting in Washington to discuss the Merida Initiative, a package of U.S. aid for the drug war. At the State Department on Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hosted her Mexican counterpart, Patricia Espinosa, at the third gathering of the Merida Initiative High-Level Consultative Group.
"It's a gift from Mexico," Gonzalez said of the extradition. "This is a way for Mexico to show its good intentions."
With most of its original leaders either arrested or dead, the cartel has splintered into rival factions in recent years, leading to brutal infighting that has all but wiped out the once-powerful group.
Arellano Felix's brother, Javier, was captured on a boat off Baja California in 2006 and sentenced to life in prison. Another brother, Ramon, the cartel's notorious enforcer, was gunned down in Mazatlan in 2002.
Benjamin Arellano Felix is scheduled to be arraigned Monday.