Sunday, March 16, 2008

Who says you can never go home again? Tijuana cartel leader returns to Mexico after surprisingly short US prison stint

After a guilty plea earned him a 6-year federal sentence just last October, a top leader from the notorious "Tijuana Cartel" was cut loose last week, crossing back into Mexico from El Paso after spending less than six months in a federal prison in Texas. (Don't worry, though, we've replaced him with this guy, a lower-level lieutenant working for one of his brothers - you wouldn't want an empty prison bed!)

Maybe somebody with a PACER account and knowledge of federal sentencing guidelines can take a look at this case and tell me how this guy got out so soon. I really don't understand it, since there's no parole in the federal system.

The Tijuana Cartel for years dominated drug trafficking into Southern California, but decades-long focus from law enforcement combined with new, powerful and bloodthirsty competitors have weakened the family-run enterprise.

Law enforcement victories against the Tijuana Cartel have been much ballyhooed in the press. This was the fellow who's brother's sentence Doc Berman said demonstrated the death penalty is an "effective plea bargaining tool." But neither the death penalty nor anything else appears to effectively decapitate this hydra-headed monster, which just saw another head grow back with the release of Francisco Rafael Arellano Felix. His release occasioned this Reuters analysis by Lizbeth Diaz shedding more light on the current status of the cartels' war over market share ("Mexico's Tijuana cartel weaker as ex-boss comes home," March 14). Diaz writes that Felix:
is coming home to a gang badly weakened by army raids and territorial gains by rivals.

The family-run Arellano Felix cartel has controlled smuggling routes around the border city of Tijuana for years, using gruesome torture and executions to hold onto its turf.

But as the clan's eldest brother Francisco Rafael Arellano Felix returns to Mexico from a U.S. prison, the cartel, now run by one of his sisters, has lost ground to its enemies.

"They've been cut down to size in many ways. They don't have the penetration they did," said Bruce Bagley, a University of Miami professor who studies Mexico's drug cartels.

President Felipe Calderon's army-led crackdown has rounded up traffickers and busted police protection rings, and the powerful Sinaloa cartel from western Mexico has muscled its way into the Arellano Felix gang's home turf.

Experts say some Tijuana smugglers are breaking away and teaming up with the Sinaloa cartel on some drug deals.

"We're seeing the emergence of a post-Tijuana cartel structure in which you have smaller organizations, splinter groups, some of whom have now allied themselves with the Sinaloa cartel in a kind of confederation-like arrangement because they need protection," said Bagley.

In another blow to the Arellano Felix cartel, one of its high-level operatives, Gustavo Rivera Martinez, was arrested this week and is being extradited to face drug charges in the United States.

Francisco Rafael Arellano Felix, released from a Texas prison last week, ran the Tijuana cartel at the peak of its power and opulence and was a fixture at flashy discos and restaurants in the seedy border city until his arrest in 1993.

Although sources say he is already back in his old stomping ground in the northwestern state of Baja California, analysts expect him to play a hands-off "godfather" role rather than take over the cartel's operations.

They say Enedina Arellano Felix, one of four sisters, is now managing the family business after other brothers were arrested or shot dead in a shootout with police.

Police say she handles its many organized crime and money laundering arms, but her grip on the cartel's prized smuggling routes has been shaken.

Last year, the Sinaloa cartel took control of Mexicali, a key smuggling city on the U.S. border that was formerly Tijuana cartel turf.
The Tijuana Cartel has been one of the big losers in the Mexican cartel wars. By contrast, the Juarez Cartel, whose bloody rampages continue to shock the conscience and imagination, appears to have been more successful resisting the Sinaloa group's money and muscle. Authorities found a mass grave with 33 bodies attributed to the gang in El Paso's sister city just last week.

The other major drug ring in Mexico (though all these operate with relatively decentralized "cell" structures not entirely under any one person's control) is the "Gulf Cartel," which has been the main target of military actions in Mexico, particularly in the states along Texas' southern border. The Gulf Cartel's main enforcement arm are "Los Zetas," whose leaders are turncoat Mexican military commandos trained at Fort Benning, Georgia by US Special Forces. Recent unconfirmed reports indicate the Juarez Cartel leader spent millions to bribe away Los Zetas from the Gulf Cartel, but at the moment I'd place that assertion in the "rumor" category.

I've discussed before how I think the Sinaloa cartel's deep pockets and more vertically integrated distribution structure make it the likely, ultimate victor in the cartel wars, based purely on an economic analysis. But when simply murdering your competitors is an option, it changes the market dynamics considerably!


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Maybe this is a poor example of life imitating art.

Did you see the Bruce Willis crime movie "Last Man Standing"? Willis plays a bad guy who gets involved with two competing gangs of drug and hooch smugglers along the Texas-Mexico border. The bloodshed from the intense competition gets so bad that the Governor of Texas sends one --- wait for it --- one Texas Ranger down there to take care of things. The Ranger makes it clear to Willis that neither he (the Ranger) nor the Governor give a damn about how much hooch and drugs are coming across, but they can't tolerate the violence. What they want is just one gang managing this particular import business. With that, the Ranger leaves it to Willis to wipe out both gangs, which of course he does.

Maybe the feds are sending Mr. Arellano Felix "deep, down into Mexico" (thank you Delbert, for that fantastic piece of music) to get the violence under control.