Toppling the Tijuana Cartel 'Dynasty'

(International Relations and Security Network, 04/09/2006)


The US Coast Guard apprehended Javier Arellano-Felix on 14 August in international waters off the Pacific coast of Mexico. He is one more brother in a long line of Arellano-Felix siblings to lose the freedom to smuggle, kill and live the high life. It remains unclear, however, if Javier's arrest will be the cascading event that unravels his family's organization, the Tijuana Cartel. Some analysts argue that Javier was a playboy and not an important leader. Others, including the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), claim that Javier's arrest has toppled a dynasty.


His older brother and former leader of the cartel, Benjamin Arellano-Felix, was arrested on 3 March 2002 in Puebla, Mexico and sent to a maximum security prison in La Palma. Benjamin's arrest shook the foundation of the cartel, but it managed to survive despite the best efforts of rival criminal organizations and law enforcement to undo the Arellano-Felix family's hold on the drug trafficking routes that pass through Tijuana into San Diego.


In 2004, two years after entering prison, Benjamin Arellano-Felix formed a strategic alliance with the leader of the so-called Gulf Cartel, Osiel Cardenas Guillen. For a number of months, the Tijuana Cartel used the help of the Gulf Cartel to defend its turf from rivals, notably Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada.


Mexican prison authorities place the end of the Tijuana-Gulf Cartel alliance in January 2005. Cardenas ordered a severe beating of Benjamin after the two had a personal disagreement. Without the alliance, the Tijuana Cartel was again on its own. By February 2005, the Arellano-Felix family, once considered Mexico's most powerful drug trafficking organization, was under attack from two separate criminal organizations. Such was the earning power generated by smuggling cocaine across the Tijuana-San Diego border.


Cardenas' henchmen, known collectively as Los Zetas, were dispatched to Baja California to remove both the remnants of the Tijuana Cartel, as well as Zambada's organization, now know as the Sinaloa Cartel. This battle rages on today in Nuevo Laredo and Acapulco as the Gulf Cartel struggles against the Sinaloa Cartel, currently run by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, for domination of the Mexican drug trade.


From 2004 until 14 August this year, the Tijuana Cartel had maintained a low profile, suggesting that the organization's current leaders prize quiet efficiency over headline-grabbing violence. One of the Arellano-Felix siblings, Enedina, is a trained accountant, and her brother, Eduardo, a surgeon. Both are considered to have taken over the organization after their older brother, Benjamin, was imprisoned in 2002. Javier, known as the "Little Tiger," may have simply served as enforcer, someone who oversaw the killing required in the criminal underworld to maintain his family's business.


Many analysts argue that Enedina and Eduardo streamlined the family business, which included a reorganization of front companies along the border, and the implication of advanced smuggling tactics and sophisticated money laundering systems.


A 2,400-foot-long tunnel, extending from a warehouse near the Tijuana airport to a large warehouse in the industrial zone of southern San Diego, was discovered in late January 2006. The tunnel revealed a level of sophistication and planning only a well-organized criminal outfit would possess. While no arrests have been made, authorities continue to believe the Arellano-Felix organization dug and operated the tunnel. The existence of this tunnel suggests that the current leaders of the Arellano-Felix organization are astute planners, not simple thugs.


Additionally, Javier had to be sent outside of Mexico for a "cooling-off" period in 2004 because his violent public antics attracted too much attention, suggesting Javier was not the organization's leader. It is also an indication of a new style of leadership that controls the Tijuana Cartel.


Despite this apparent change of style and the seemingly little impact Javier's arrest has had on his family's organization, the Tijuana Cartel has seen better days. Relative to the power-hungry and ruthless leaders of the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels, the Tijuana Cartel has become weakened by a constant string of arrests, deaths and capture of high-level leaders.


Benjamin Arellano-Felix's arrest in March 2002 followed the death of his brother Ramon, who, when killed by Mexican police in Mazatlan in February 2002, was considered to be the organization's other high-level commander. A year before the removal of Benjamin and Ramon, a key lieutenant, Ismael "El Mayal" Higuera Guerrero, was arrested on charges of having personally ordered or carried out over 40 homicides, including the death of Tijuana police chief Alfredo De la Torre.


Only days after Javier was arrested, Mexican authorities arrested two more alleged lieutenants in the Arellano-Felix organization. Eleazar "El Viejo" Garcia Simentel and Jorge Juan Mohendan Quinones are both in custody. Mexican authorities are expected to put these men through interrogation that some believe may lead to the arrest of more mid-level leaders in the Tijuana Cartel.


No doubt US authorities will do their best to break Javier. Unlike his older brother, who is imprisoned in Mexico, Javier has been arraigned within the US court system. He currently awaits his trial and has a court-appointed defense lawyer, not a high-powered Mexican lawyer on the family payroll. The US Department of Justice has a long history of putting away men like Javier for consecutive life sentences. As a member of the Arellano-Felix organization, Javier is just as dead to them as his other brother Ramon.


The deconstruction of the Tijuana Cartel, which has existed since the late 1970s, would be a great success for the DEA and Mexican authorities, but it would create a vacuum of power that will certainly be filled.


The Tijuana border crossing is second only to Nuevo Laredo in terms of daily commerce and numbers of trucks, cars and humans crossing north into the US. If either the Sinaloa or Gulf cartels manage to take hold of both border crossings, they will likely consolidate control over the length of the US-Mexico border, amassing a sizeable amount of power backed by billions of dollars of annual revenue.


The demise of the Tijuana Cartel may not happen with the arrest of Javier Arellano-Felix, but the cartel is arguably one step closer to dissolution, and Mexican organized crime one step closer to becoming the mega-organization that singularly and expertly controls smuggling operations into the US.


It is clearly the last thing the Mexican government needs. In a world of asymmetric war propagated by non-state actors, a long border with Mexico controlled by a mega-organization globally known to be efficient smugglers becomes more of a "soft underbelly" situation for the US government every day. The DEA may have toppled a dynasty, but it remains to be seen if it has facilitated the growth of another.