Police capture key drug suspect

One of Mexico’s most-wanted drug trafficking suspects was captured Saturday night at his Tijuana home after a fierce shootout with authorities, providing some good news amid the border city’s raging drug war.

Eduardo Arellano Felix, an original member of the notorious Arellano Felix drug cartel, was arrested in an operation by more than 100 federal and state police officers and soldiers, according to U.S. and Mexican officials. They were acting on a tip supplied by U.S. authorities, who had offered up to $5 million for information leading to the arrest of Arellano Felix, said Eileen Zeidler, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Arellano Felix was a key figure in the early years of the cartel, which grew into one of Mexico’s most powerful organized crime groups by smuggling tons of cocaine into the U.S., starting in the late 1980s.

The cartel has been decimated in recent years by arrests and killings, including the capture and deaths of four siblings of Arellano Felix.

The suspected kingpin had been in hiding for several years and was living at his home under an assumed name, authorities said.

“He was the last of the brothers. This was another significant blow to what’s left of the Arellano Felix organization,” Zeidler said.

The U.S. attorney’s office in San Diego named Arellano Felix in a 2003 indictment that accused him and 10 cartel associates of racketeering, drug trafficking, money laundering and several killings.

No injuries were reported in the shootout. The suspect was flown to Mexico City after his arrest, and U.S. authorities will seek his extradition.

The Mexican government claimed a major victory in its offensive against the country’s organized crime groups. Facundo Rosas, deputy minister for strategy and police intelligence, described Arellano Felix as a “historic and moral figure in the Tijuana cartel” at a news conference in Mexico City.

But some experts and U.S. officials said his role in the organization had diminished in recent years and it was unclear whether his capture would have much of an effect.

Arellano Felix, nicknamed El Doctor because he was once a medical student, took a much lower profile after the 1993 killing of Guadalajara Archbishop Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo, which was blamed on cartel gunmen.

“That was a very pivotal moment in how the Arellanos were perceived in Tijuana and in Mexico in general,” said John Kirby, a former federal prosecutor who co-wrote the original indictment against several of the Arellano Felix brothers and associates.

“All of a sudden everybody was their enemy,” Kirby said.

Though he became somewhat of a recluse, Arellano Felix became a mentor for the current leader of the cartel, his nephew, Fernando Sanchez Arellano, who is under attack by rivals inside and outside the organization, Zeidler said.

The drug war has claimed more than 150 lives in Tijuana since late September, and federal authorities have been criticized for not sending enough federal agents and troops to quell the violence.

President Felipe Calderon’s anti-drug offensive seems to have stalled in recent months, with violence flaring across the country and some critics questioning his commitment.

Tijuana Mayor Jorge Ramos, who has criticized the federal government in the past, hailed the arrest, saying it was the kind of action the city had been waiting for. “The message is clear. . . . There is nobody that can escape the law,” Ramos told reporters in Tijuana.

Marosi is a Times staff writer.