In Mexico, the media called her la bonita (“the pretty one”) or la chula ( “the beautiful one”) or la reina del crimen (“the queen of Mexican crime”).
Mexican authorities have long alleged that Anel Violeta Noriega Rios, 27, was a top operative in the La Familia drug cartel working out of the United States. They said that she helped smuggle drugs from Mexico into the United States, once using a gardening company to move drugs brought by sea into Long Beach.
But when authorities arrested Noriega Rios at a modest El Monte apartment last week on immigration charges, there were no indications the woman had a 5-million peso reward on her head.
“It is the last place you’d expect to find someone who was supposed to have run so many drugs,” a source familiar with the investigation told The Times.
When announcing Noriega Rios’ arrest Tuesday, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcementcalled her a “main U.S.-based operative” in the La Familia cartel, a group often characterized as ruthless and cult-like, known for moving mostly methamphetamine — but cocaine and marijuana as well — into the U.S. from the Mexican state of Michoacan.
Authorities began watching Noriega Rios in El Monte upon the request of Mexican officials, who received a tip that she was living in the working-class San Gabriel Valley city. After authorities were able to determine that the woman was in fact Noriega Rios, they arrested her without incident.
They confirmed her identity later using fingerprints, sources said.
ICE officials said Noriega Rios was arrested in the United States and deported to Mexico five times between 2004 and 2005 but has no criminal convictions in the U.S.
She was handed over to Mexican authorities in San Ysidro on Friday.
Mexican authorities have arrested several top-level La Familia leaders in recent years, moves not only described by some officials as significant blows to the cartel, but ones that led to struggles within the organization. Sources told The Times that about two dozen cartel operatives have been captured in the U.S. by various federal agencies in the last two years. The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because the case was ongoing.
Noriega Rios was frequently mentioned in Mexican press reports. She was purportedly a contact between the Michoacan cartel and the powerful Sinaloa cartel and its leaders, including top cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, a man whom theU.S. Treasury Departmenthas declared the world’s most powerful drug trafficker.
Law enforcement sources said they were puzzled to find such a wanted woman seemingly hiding in plain sight in El Monte.
“It is not clear if she was just hiding or just had fallen on hard times,” one source said.
Times staff writer Hector Becerra contributed to this report.