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Mexico: The next drug superpower

Mexico: The next drug superpower

November 16, 1996

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Mexico: The next drug superpower
By Ray Sanchez / Newsday
TIJUANA, Mexico -- The twostory peach house sits shrouded in silence on a suburban street near the world's busiest border crossing. From its hollowed walls and hidden compartments carved out of hard ground, cocaine was dispatched by Mexico's deadliest cartel through its vast pipeline to feed America's voracious appetite for narcotics.
Dolores Martinez stands in front of the stucco house and marvels at the changes that one month can bring. Inside, an unopened box of cereal lies on a kitchen counter and an abandoned 6-month-old mutt trapped behind the home's gated wall howls in loneliness and hunger. Federal judicial police had routinely protected and guarded the oncebustling building until the same agency joined with army troops to raid it, seizing more than 80 kilos of cocaine.

"Uniformed police commanders swaggered in and out of there like it was their own home," said Martinez, a longtime neighbor in her 50s who displays her courage by daring to speak of the drug trade in a city whose growth industries include gangland-style bloodshed and graft. "The police were like the traffickers' very own private security force and did nothing to hide it."

Buoyed by millions of dollars in payoffs to law enforcement authorities and well-established links to Colombia's cocaine cartels, traffickers are turning Mexico into the world's next drug superpower.

With the use of drugs up sharply among American youths and enforcement a major issue in the United States, politicians, parents and police officers are taking a closer look at the superhighway of drugs that joins Tijuana, Mexico City and the cities of the United States. Hundreds on both sides of the border have been murdered as ruthless drug lords sought influence and protection for their lucrative enterprises.

Drug smuggling and money laundering have transformed border towns, once distinguished by different language and culture, into a single domain oblivious to all legal boundaries. As in Colombia, where trafficking groups supply 80 percent of the world's cocaine and a growing portion of its heroin, the economic, social and political fabric of Mexico has been twisted into a transnational narcotics empire with only one rule: Keep cocaine flowing north and dollars south by any means necessary.

"Authority has been completely overrun by delinquency," said Victor Clark Alfaro, director of the Tijuana-based Binational Center for Human Rights.

Nowhere is that metamorphosis as blatant as in Tijuana. Once a grimy bacchanalian playground for U.S. tourists, there is now one crack house for each of the 500 neighborhoods in Mexico's most-visited tourist destination. Narco-dollars are everywhere in this bustling metropolis of 1.2 million. Glass and steel high-rises, part of the construction boom financed by drug dollars, have sprouted near hillside shantytowns without water or electricity.

Tijuana is also the land of the Arellano Felix brothers, reputed rulers of the multimillion-dollar organization. Authorities on both sides of the border paint a picture of the clan's activities including a trail of drug-related violence and payoffs from Mexico City to Southern California.

The Arellanos are living legends whose public appearances, down considerably of late, were spectacles featuring caravans of four-wheeldrive vehicles with tinted windows and heavily armed escorts. Sightings of the brothers have been reported in Tijuana night spots and San Diego's trendy La Jolla section. They built homes in exclusive hillside neighborhoods in Tijuana, and marked their children's baptism with lavish receptions reminiscent of scenes in "The Godfather." Most of all, they partied hard.

They invested millions from their drug fortune into hundreds of their Mexican and U.S. properties -- including warehouses, hotels, discos, restaurants and pharmacies -- while employing the world's busiest border crossing to bring cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamines and heroin into the United States. Transported by car, truck and airplane, the drugs are smuggled into the United States, then shipped to distributors throughout the country. Mexican prosecutors and military commandos seized nearly 50 proper ties linked to their organization since March and arrested several of their henchmen, but the brothers remain at large.

Record narcotics seizures, the arrests of several key midlevel smugglers and August's purge of more than 700 corrupt federal judicial police officers are among the successes Mexican government officials like to point to as encouraging signs they are winning their fight against the smugglers.

"Slow, firm steps are being taken," said Francisco Molina, commissioner of the National Institute to Combat Drugs, Mexico's equivalent of the Drug Enforcement Administration. "It will not happen overnight."

But critics maintain that the leaders of Mexico's cartels still operate with impunity. Two years after entering the North American Free Trade Agreement, which eased border restriction, further liberalizing commercial ties with the United States and Canada, Mexico has been unable -- or unwilling -- to halt these powerful drug organizations.

"The Mexican government is being pulled in two directions," said Ernesto Ruffo Appel, former Baja California governor. "One arm is being yanked by the United States in urging Mexico to put its house in order by arresting or extraditing the traffickers. The other is being pulled by the traffickers themselves and the various political interests linked to the drug industry."

No one is interested in pursuing the brothers from Sinaloa -- Benjamin, 44, Javier, in his 20s, and Ramon, 30 -- or collecting the official $1 million bounty offered by the Mexican government on the Arellano clan. Even Tijuana's public security director, Jorge Alvarez, a former state judicial police commander who sports a fake Rolex around his wrist, knows his role and said he's content.

"I'm not going out to look for them," the commander of a 1,250member police force said. "Maybe they're armed and I don't want to die. I have a few years to go yet, I hope ... What happens if I find them? They'll kill me."

Forging strong ties with Colombia's cocaine cartels, Mexican traffickers have become players in a sophisticated international network for transporting money and drugs. With close contact to smuggling clans along the border, cocaine brokers operate out of highrise penthouses in swank Mexico City neighborhoods.

Authorities on both sides of the border believe the Arellano brothers are also responsible for a spate of grisly murders of Mexican police investigators this year, although some law enforcement insiders have not ruled out the hand of corrupt police officials in the slayings.

Sept. 6, Mexican authorities arrested Manuel Rodriguez Lopez in Baja Calfornia and identified him as a conduit between the Arellano organization and Colombia's Cali cartel. A fleet of boats, some allegedly used to smuggle cocaine from Colombia into Mexico and then to the United States, along with several properties worth $15 million were seized from Rodriguez, an alleged kingpin.

In late May, Mexico's government arrested a man it alleges is the main contact between Mexican drug lord Amado Carrillo Fuentes and top Cali cartel bosses. Together, the kingpins moved hundreds of kilos of cocaine into the United States through Texas, several prosecutors say. The Bolivia-born connection, Jose Luis Pereira Salas, was extradited and is scheduled to stand trial early next year in Miami as part of a 49-defendant federal case that named Carrillo, the imprisoned heads of the Cali cartel and several Miami defense lawyers in a drug conspiracy.

With the help of Mauricio Escobar Lopez, a Colombian who settled in Mexico, Pereira ran several businesses in Mexico City, according to Mexican and U.S. officials. They bribed Mexico City airport authorities and shuttled an estimated $4 million a week in drug proceeds to Colombia aboard commercial flights, authorities said. Meanwhile, the Colombians supplied Carrillo's Juarez cartel with all the cocaine it wanted. Pereira, when he was arrested in May, was carrying $2 million from a just completed cocaine deal with Carrillo, Mexican authorities said.

For five years, Pereira served as Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela's contact in Mexico, according to a federal prosecutor in Miami. As Miguel Rodriguez, the Cali cartel's No. 2 man, and his brother, cartel boss Gilberto, continue to run the enterprise from behind bars in Colombia, their point men in Mexico remain crucial to the pipeline.

"It's clear the Mexican cartels cannot operate without these guys nor would the Colombians agree to work with them without some type of intermediary on the ground that they trust," said one U.S. law enforcement official, who asked to remain unnamed.

Luis Antonio Ibanez, head of the federal attorney general's office in Tijuana until early October, was part of the team the government put in place to investigate the Arellanos. He played a role in January's arrest of Juan Garcia Abrego, who was extradited to the United States.

Abrego, head of the mighty Gulf cartel, was convicted Oct. 16 by a federal jury in Houston on 22 counts of drug trafficking and money laundering. For Ibanez, the Arellanos have proved more elusive than Abrego.

In a recent interview, Ibanez boasted that the Arellanos were no longer able to move around Tijuana with impunity.

"In another time that might have been true," he said. He boasted about cocaine and marijuana seizures without offering comparable figures for previous years. "There's no comparison," he insisted. "My work has been impressive."

In early October, Ibanez was transferred from Tijuana. A spokesman for the attorney general said the timing had more to do with the string of assassinations of Tijuana police officials. However, some U.S. and Mexican officials said the move came because of Ibanez's lack of success against the Arellanos.

"To my knowledge, he had zero impact," said one ranking U.S. law enforcement official.

Martinez, a lifelong Tijuana resident, said she is tired of looking the other way. When army and federal police officials raided the Arellano stash house near her home last month, she thought it was a military invasion.

"We can no longer turn a blind eye," she said. "It is so painfully obvious. We are losing our country to drugs. We live in fear. But we can't be silent."


Copyright 1996, The Detroit News

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