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Monday, June 28, 2004

Leading lives of quiet deception

SignOnSanDiego.com > News > Mexico -- Leading lives of quiet deception

Some drug cartel associates live peacefully in county
By Anna Cearley
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
June 28, 2004

On the surface, Jaime Ocampo seemed to be just another family man enjoying life in the suburbs.

He and his wife had moved into a brand new house in a rapidly growing east Chula Vista subdivision where homes go for $600,000 to $1 million. It's a neighborhood where parents push baby strollers on warm summer evenings and children play in lush parks.

Ocampo's peaceful illusion crumbled last month when Mexican authorities arrested him and two other men in Rosarito Beach, linking them to one of the region's most powerful drug trafficking groups.

Federal authorities have charged the three men with organized crime activities and kidnapping and are keeping them in a high-security prison. Baja California authorities said the three confessed to carrying out killings for the Arellano Félix cartel, even disintegrating some of their victims' bodies in acid.

In the wake of the deadly drug-related confrontations on the streets of Tijuana last week, the allegations highlight an uncomfortable truth: Some associates of Mexican drug traffickers live in houses sprinkled throughout San Diego County suburbs. They often send their children to private schools here and join local churches, and sometimes act as links to drug networks north of the border.

"What they do to mask themselves is to involve themselves in all types of events, which on the surface may seem outstanding or whatever, though the basis of how they thrive and survive is off the drug trade," said John Fernandes, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration's San Diego office.

The Ocampo case also illustrates the challenges cross-border crime poses to law enforcement officers, who find it hard to crack family loyalties and to address fear of retribution. One of the trio's alleged victims also lived in San Diego County, but that family will not talk to U.S. or Mexican authorities.

There is a basis for that fear: According to a U.S. federal court indictment, the Arellanos were behind the killings of six people in California, most of them in San Diego County.

Ocampo, 33, isn't the only person suspected of being an Arellano hitman with ties to San Diego County. One of the other captured men, Jose Roque, 29, claimed to be from San Diego. Erick Ballesteros, 25, said he was from Mexico City. The families of Roque and Ballesteros could not be reached for comment.

Family members at Ocampo's Otay Lakes home dismissed the allegations by Mexican authorities. "I know that he's innocent and honorable. . . . This is all a mistake," said one family member, who declined to be identified by name, as children played inside the house. The family member was at a loss to explain how Ocampo bought the home: "I can't explain his profession, but he has worked hard for this."

U.S. drug enforcement authorities said they know some of the three arrested men have ties to San Diego, but would not provide specifics. They did elaborate on other suspected cartel members with U.S. links:

Marcos Arturo Quiñones, who allegedly oversaw teams of gunmen and acted as a hitman for the Arellanos, grew up in the Logan Heights area, according to U.S. authorities. He was arrested last year in Tijuana, but his wife and three young children, all U.S. citizens, lived in San Diego. He remains in a prison near Mexico City, awaiting a judge's decision.

Ivonne Soto Vega, suspected of being a major money launderer for the Arellanos, lived for years in an upscale neighborhood of Bonita. The mother of two was arrested in Tijuana in 2001. It is unclear whether she has been sentenced.

Manuel Aguirre Galindo, 60, who is suspected of holding a high-ranking position in the Arellano cartel, has family in San Diego County. The Drug Enforcement Administration is offering a reward of up to $2 million for information leading to his arrest.

U.S. citizen Gustavo Rivera Martinez, 42, who is also suspected of being a high-ranking Arellano member, is a Bonita Vista High School graduate who has relatives on the U.S. side of the border, according to U.S. authorities. The DEA has offered a $2 million reward for information leading to his capture.


Cross-border movement
The Arellano Félix cartel is said to control most of the flow of drugs from Tijuana into the United States, though rival cartels such as one headed by Ismael Zambada are challenging them. The cartel has traditionally charged other groups to use its territory; those who don't cooperate are threatened and sometimes killed.
High-ranking members who have been indicted in the United States often move between different safe houses in Mexico, several drug trafficking experts said. Those with less visible positions sometimes manage to maintain a more permanent presence in the United States while doing their work in Mexico.

None of the three men captured in May was considered to be high-ranking or to have a serious criminal record in the United States, according to the DEA.

The three received orders from Arellano member Gilberto Camacho Valles, and they also guarded marijuana loads in Tijuana safe houses, according to the Mexican Attorney General's Office. But no one seems to know how much they earned.

U.S. authorities say they regularly try to persuade drug traffickers' family members and associates living in the United States to provide information. It's against the law to assist or harbor fugitives, but loyalties run deep.

It took an undercover FBI officer two years to gain the trust of members of a suspected Arellano drug distribution cell operating north of the border. The officer's work led to the 1999 arrests of about a dozen people, including Lakeside helicopter pilot Ronnie Walthers, a U.S. citizen.

In that operation, authorities also captured Sergio Rubalcava Sandoval, a former Baja California state police commander. They seized more than $1 million of Rubalcava's assets, including his Bonita home, two cars and a boat. Rubalcava was believed to be one of the cartel's main San Diego links, reporting to a high-ranking Arellano cartel member.

Rubalcava pleaded guilty to drug trafficking charges, but has since denied working for the Arellanos.


An editor's view
Tijuana journalist Jesús Blancornelas, who writes extensively about the drug trade in his weekly newspaper Zeta, said such arrests demonstrate the extensive reach of the Arellanos' network north of the border, which he believes remains intact. Blancornelas made his comments several weeks ago, before his Zeta colleague, Francisco Ortíz Franco, was shot to death on a Tijuana street, an attack that Blancornelas has reported may be the work of drug gangs.
Drug traffickers and associates live or spend time in San Diego "for the same reason lots of important people in Tijuana have their houses there," Blancornelas said: safety and quality of life.

"In Mexico, they risk being in the middle of a gunbattle or being pursued by the army," he said.

The cross-border nature of organized crime is also reflected in the fact that one of the trio's alleged victims, Ángel Martín Martínez, lived in the South Bay area.

Martínez was a legal U.S. resident who used to practice criminal law in Tijuana before he got involved in drug trafficking, according to a person who knew Martínez but will not speak to U.S. or Mexican authorities. Citing safety reasons, the person declined to be identified.

The person explained how Martínez disappeared:

Martínez preferred to work on his own, but he apparently was forced to work with the Arellanos in recent years because he owed them money. The relationship apparently broke down, and he became a target.

About three months ago, Martínez, who owned an Otay Mesa used-auto lot, went to Tijuana with two of his business associates – apparently to seal a deal on a drug shipment – and never came back.

Instead of going to law enforcement authorities, family members started negotiating with the kidnappers, who contacted them immediately.

In April, family members brought a suitcase with ransom money to a Tijuana parking lot.

They were told to leave the suitcase inside the opened car trunk while staying inside the car. More than a dozen cars surrounded them while the suitcase was taken from the back. After the cars left, they found a note directing them to another location to pick up the missing men. They went there and waited, but no one ever appeared.

Another month passed, and their fears were confirmed when Baja California authorities announced that the three men captured in May admitted to kidnapping Martinez and his companions for $1 million – and destroying their bodies in vats of acid.

The captured men allegedly claimed that the three victims were targeted because they were dealing in cocaine and crystal methamphetamine. The cartel is especially vigilant in protecting the trafficking it does in those kinds of drugs because they typically are more profitable than marijuana.

However, the person who knew Martínez claimed Martínez didn't traffic in harder drugs, just marijuana "because it's not addictive like the others are."

"He was a good person," Martínez's associate said. "He enjoyed walking with his children to the park, and participating in their school events. He would donate part of his money to the churches and to an orphanage he had in Tijuana. He didn't deserve to die this way."


Careful with words
The person who knew Martinez said the family won't speak to authorities out of fear of retaliation.
The cartel is said to have allies among certain members of Baja California law enforcement groups, and the fear they incite is so strong that some people refrain from uttering their names in Tijuana restaurants, lest someone with the cartel overhears them.

That fear tends to spill over the border. U.S. authorities say that persuading friends and family members of drug traffickers to speak out can be challenging.

"There certainly is a fear of retribution, and that's something we certainly need to overcome," Fernandes said.

A casual acquaintance of Ocampo, who declined to be identified for that reason, said that for someone who lived in such nice areas, Ocampo didn't seem to have an explainable profession. He would sometimes say he was in the import-export business.

"His story would always change," the person said. "He would be out of town for inexplicable reasons."

A number of properties and businesses under the name of a Jaime Ocampo were found in San Diego County. But just two houses, both in the rapidly growing Otay Lakes area, could be confirmed as belonging to Ocampo and his wife: the one where his family lives, and another that may have been sold recently.

San Diego County business records show that a Jaime Ocampo had a business called Gem In I Productions that listed one of Ocampo's confirmed house properties as the address. The business had no phone number.

Mexican police arrested Ocampo and the two other men May 15 while pursuing a convoy of cars believed to be involved in the abduction of two Tijuana police officers. One of the officers was rescued; the other remains missing. The three suspects were flown to Mexico City to continue the legal process there – a move typically reserved for those suspected of having ties to highly dangerous groups.

But the distance and their incarceration doesn't create peace of mind for Martínez's friends and family. They worry that the authors of the crime are still free, and that they could be in San Diego.

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