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News (Media Awareness Project) - Mexico: US Gains Insight Into Cartel Ranks
Title:Mexico: US Gains Insight Into Cartel Ranks
Published On:2000-06-11
Source:San Diego Union Tribune (CA)
Fetched On:2008-09-03 19:55:27

Lower-Level Arrests Offer Access Into Operation's Inner Workings

Fidel Chan Amador was bound to cross paths with a drug cartel, officials said.

Manuel Espinoza once turned down a job smuggling tons of cocaine across the
U.S.-Mexico border. Espinoza was a specialist: He smuggled only marijuana,
according to an account filed in federal court.

But when Espinoza was approached about the same job again, he couldn't
refuse. This time, the offer came from Ismael Higuera Guerrero, a reputed
top lieutenant in the Arellano Felix drug cartel. And the Arellanos'
approach to business was well known in drug smuggling circles: If you
didn't work with them, you could end up dead.

Last month, federal prosecutors in San Diego unsealed drug trafficking
charges against brothers Ramon and Benjamn Arellano Felix after a five-year
investigation. The cartel the brothers are accused of leading for the past
10 years is believed to be one of the most violent in Mexico, responsible
for sending tons of marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin into the
United States.

But even if American and Mexican anti-drug agents succeed in capturing the
Arellanos, they know that people like Espinoza -- the rank and file who
fetch, carry and kill for the cartel leaders -- could shift their
allegiance to someone new.

"The flow will continue as long as demand for narcotics exists in this
country," said William Gore, special agent in charge of the FBI in San
Diego. "Another cartel would try to step in."

To try to keep the cartel off balance, U.S. agents have spent the past five
years arresting and prosecuting a string of people they accuse of serving
as hitmen, smugglers and corrupt officials for the Arellanos.

Prosecutors say these less-publicized investigations help them gather
evidence about the cartel's inner workings. Perhaps equally important, each
arrest disrupts the cartel's regular business of transporting drugs deep
into the United States.

Some of the accused smugglers end up cooperating with authorities.
Espinoza, for example, began talking to U.S. agents about his role in the
Arellano cartel after he was sentenced to 14 years in prison for conspiracy
to distribute cocaine.

Other smugglers refuse to cooperate, because they fear cartel members will
hurt them or their families. And those who do talk may not always tell the

Still, the government persists.

"At times, it may seem daunting," said Gonzalo Curiel, an assistant U.S.
attorney in San Diego who has devoted the past several years to pursuing
drug smugglers. "You realize that other traffickers may be waiting in the
wings. But you have to keep attacking the problem before it seeps into
every part of society."

The following three cases reflect the difficulties federal officials have
faced as they try to infiltrate the Arellano cartel, an organization
described as being built on greed, alliances and territorial control. The
account is based on documents filed in federal court and interviews with
federal agents, prosecutors and defense attorneys.

The Police Officer

According to a U.S. undercover agent, Sergio Rubalcava Sandoval understood
what it meant to make a pact with reputed Arellano lieutenant Ismael
Higuera Guerrero, who Rubalcava described as "death personified."

"I was the most corrupt," the former Baja California state police commander
told the agent in 1998. "I handed over my police career to this person."

Law-enforcement officials say Rubalcava's case reveals how drug cartels
corrupt public officials who are eager to be bought or unwilling to be killed.

For nine years, Rubalcava worked in the low-paying, high-risk job of a
state police officer in Baja California. At one point, he was shot while on
duty and bears the scar on his forehead, his San Diego attorney, James
Pasto, said.

When Rubalcava left the force, he initially supported his family by
investing in local food distribution routes.

But drug smuggling was a strong temptation.

Rubalcava told the undercover agent he received as much as $15,000 a month
to oversee the transportation of marijuana and cocaine across the border
and into San Diego. Authorities believe he used the money to buy a
five-bedroom house in Bonita and a boat.

Smuggling is easy, Rubalcava told the agent. All a smuggler needs is the
right equipment such as horse trailers, he said. Helicopters work better,
because they're difficult to track.

Soon, Rubalcava was confiding to the undercover agent that he not only
worked for Higuera, but for the Arellanos.

Rubalcava told the agent his bosses in Mexico let smugglers use drug routes
through Mexico for a percentage of the load. In exchange, the load was
protected all the way from Mexico.

Believing the undercover agent was a Colombian drug trafficker, Rubalcava
promised the agent he would try to arrange a meeting with the Arellano

When the undercover agent declined, citing concern about recent killings in
Tijuana, Rubalcava tried to reassure the agent. There was no need to worry,
he said, because his bosses were responsible for the murders.

By 1998, authorities said, Rubalcava was so deeply involved in the cartel
that Higuera asked him to help pay $400,000 in hospital bills for the
family of another Arellano brother, Eduardo. Eduardo Arellano and his
family were severely burned in a fire triggered by a gas leak, and his wife
and children were taken to a burn-treatment center in San Diego.

Rubalcava's boasts soon became more alarming. He claimed he had murdered
people, then ground up the bodies and turned them into fertilizer or
pozole, a type of Mexican soup. The remains were then dumped into the gutter.

After the murders, Rubalcava said, the victims' wallets were thrown onto
their families' lawns, as a message.

Rubalcava also confided to the agent that his bosses had ordered the
September 1998 massacre near Ensenada, where 19 men, women and children
were killed. Agents never determined whether this, or any of his other
claims, were true.

In March 1999, U.S. agents persuaded Rubalcava to fly 50 kilos of sham
cocaine in a helicopter on behalf of a fake Colombian drug cartel. Then
they arrested him.

A year later, Rubalcava pleaded guilty to drug trafficking charges. When
he's sentenced later this month in San Diego federal court, he'll face 20
years in prison.

Rubalcava now denies working for the Arellanos. His attorney recently said
his client was "puffing himself up" when he talked about working with the

The "Hitman"

Emilio Valdez was raised by an upper-middle-class family who sent him to
some of Mexico's best schools. For a time, he studied to be a lawyer, U.S.
law-enforcement officials said.

But Valdez's upbringing didn't prepare him to resist the lure of drug
traffickers like the Arellanos, who win over smugglers like Valdez by
establishing personal ties with them, authorities said.

In 1991, Ramon Arellano Felix was a godfather to Valdez's son. Arturo Paez
Martnez, now imprisoned in Mexico awaiting a U.S. extradition request on
drug trafficking charges, was also a godfather to the little boy.

Valdez is believed to have vacationed with Ramon in the Mexican resort town
of Acapulco. He also allowed the cartel leaders to hold meetings in his
Tijuana home.

As Ramon's drug business grew, Valdez's role in the organization expanded, too.

At first, authorities said, he served as an occasional go-between in drug
smuggling deals. Then he began leading a gang of hitmen who murdered
Arellano rivals and law-enforcement officials, authorities said.

By the mid-1990s, Mexican and U.S. officials had linked Valdez to at least
four slayings. One of the victims was a Mexican prosecutor, Jesus Romero
Magana, who had been investigating Valdez's ties to the Arellanos.

At one point, Valdez is believed to have targeted Curiel, who supervises
the San Diego prosecutions of cases related to the Arellano cartel. For
several months, Curiel drove around San Diego in a bullet-proofed Suburban
and lived in a safe house guarded by U.S. marshals.

"His solution to being investigated in Mexico was to kill a prosecutor,"
Curiel said. "He probably believed he could do the same in the United
States and get away with it."

For years, Valdez eluded law-enforcement officials on both sides of the border.

Armed with a green card, he traveled freely between the United States and
Mexico. He owned several houses in Mexico and was said to rent others in
upper-class neighborhoods of Tijuana, Guadalajara and Mexico City.

When U.S. agents arrested him in 1996 on a Mexican extradition request, he
was living in a Coronado condominium.

While waiting in a San Diego prison for the outcome of the extradition,
Valdez met a Mexican attorney convicted of drug trafficking crimes. Valdez
grew to trust the attorney and told him he knew smugglers outside of prison
who could arrange the sale of cocaine and heroin, authorities said.

But the attorney was cooperating with U.S. agents, who were recording
conversations in both men's cells and intercepting Valdez's letters.

In 1998, Valdez pleaded guilty to drug-trafficking charges in San Diego
federal court and is serving a 30-year prison sentence in Cumberland, Md.
He recently turned down a request to speak with The San Diego Union-Tribune.

The "Smuggler"

One way authorities believe the Arellanos control their drug-smuggling
terrority or "plaza" in Baja California is by paying smugglers to transport
their drugs. Smugglers who move drugs through the plaza without the
cartel's direct supervision must pay a tax. Those who don't pay can end up
tortured and dead.

As a free-lance drug smuggler, Fidel Chan Amador was almost certain to
cross paths with the cartel, federal authorities said.

In 1992, Chan started a life on the run as a federal fugitive, after he
walked away from a U.S. minimum security prison in Nevada where he was
serving time for drug trafficking.

But U.S. agents caught up with Chan in 1996 and monitored the group for
more than two years. Agents sent in a cooperating witness to win the trust
of Chan and a group of people accused of working with him.

The witness, who had no known criminal record, concocted a story about a
corrupt U.S. official willing to allow drug loads to cross the border

Reputed Arellano lieutenant Ismael Higuera Guerrero heard the story of the
corrupt official and told Chan and his associates he would work with them.
But first, they had to prove their reliability. If his organization wasn't
protected, Higuera warned, someone would be killed.

In April of 1998, a group of men who identified themselves as Mexican
police officers kidnapped Chan, threw a sack over his head and handcuffed
him. They took Chan to a house and held a gun to his head. When the sack
was removed, Chan recognized the men as Higuera's associates.

The men took Chan to a yacht anchored off the coast of Ensenada, where
Higuera was waiting. Higuera apologized, saying he had been suspicious that
the group was working with law-enforcement officials, the witness told agents.

Chan apparently had passed a test. He was told he would be allowed to
transport marijuana and cocaine across the border and was given $100,000 in
cash as payment.

But Chan's group was having internal problems.

Chan complained that an associate had stolen part of a drug load headed to
San Ysidro. Higuera demanded the associate be killed, the witness told
authorities, and group members began electronically monitoring phone calls
to see if they could locate the man.

Chan also suspected that a driver had disappeared with some of the group's
cash. Days later, the driver was found dead from a blow to his head and
stuffed in a car trunk in Tijuana. To this day, authorities don't know who
killed him.

In a raid last June, U.S. authorities arrested 13 people they believed were
working with Chan out of San Diego. Eight have been convicted and five are
awaiting trial.

As a result of that investigation, authorities seized 12,000 pounds of
marijuana in the United States, 16,000 pounds of marijuana in Mexico and
$288,000 in drug money.

Like the Arellanos, Chan and four other accused members of the group still
are eluding authorities. As recently as a year ago, Chan was believed to be
living in Tijuana and smuggling drugs into San Diego and on to other U.S.
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