Reprinted with permission of Los Angeles Magazine.
Copyright 1997. All rights reserved.
After a bloody war that has turned Tijuana into a free-fire zone, the
Arellano Brothers are the biggest cocaine smugglers in the United States.
They've got most of Baja's cops in their pocket and some of Mexico's wealthiest
children doing their killing. Welcome to the family business.
The shooting started as soon as Commander Alejandro Castaneda Andrade and his
six special federal agents forced the stolen red Suburban with California
license plates to pull over. The moment the federales got out of their two
cars, guns at the ready, the Suburban's tinted windows blew out and Castaneda
and his men were sprayed with automatic -weapons' fire from inside. They
frantically dove for cover and returned the fire. The shoot-out lasted several
minutes; the gunmen-pinned down in a brutal crossfire-finally surrendered to
As soon as he had his prisoners handcuffed, faces pressed into the asphalt,
Castaneda realized that several of them were Baja state police officers
moonlighting as bodyguards for the notorious Arellano Felix brothers, the
biggest drug lords in northwest Mexico.
Finding cops working for drug dealers didn't surprise Castaneda. He knew the
world, and the world knew him. He was that rarest of breeds in Mexico, an
honest cop--so honest, in fact, that his everyday whereabouts were kept secret
lest he be set up by fellow officers in the pocket of the cartels. Castaneda
was the Dirty Harry of Baja California, and he was about to make the arrest of
Lying before him, handcuffed and bleeding, was Javier Arellano, one of the most
wanted men in all of Mexico. Javier and his two brothers ran one of the biggest
drug smuggling operations in the world, and they had been waging a deadly war
with any cops brave enough to confront them. That year, they had already killed
24 law enforcement agents. For Castaneda, for Mexico, this was a perfect
Until another Suburban came roaring out of the darkness.
Its doors flew open, and a second swarm of corrupt Baja policemen-AK-47s
blazing-rushed toward Castaneda and his prisoners. This time there was nowhere
to hide. Castaneda was hit twice in the back and fell to the ground. As he lay
dying, the last thing he saw was young Javier Arellano being loaded into the
back of the white Suburban and whisked away.
This wild reversal of fortune took place in the middle of downtown Tijuana on
March 3, 1994. The next day, Mexico's attorney general again declared the
Arellano brothers "the most hunted" fugitives in the nation, with a $5 million
bounty on their heads. And while the attorney general periodically announces
that federal agents are closing in on them, Javier and his two brothers are
regularly spotted in San Diego--brunching in Coronado or shopping for suits in
La Jolla. There have also been the occasional sightings in Tijuana--at
restaurants and nightclubs, accompanied by their Baja state police
"No one accepts the idea that these three men cannot be found," says Jose Luis
Perez Canchola, vice president of the Mexican Academy of Human Rights.
"Especially with the capability of the Mexican government's nationwide network
of domestic espionage. This search is science fiction."
The Arellano cartel smuggles about 20 percent of the Colombian cocaine entering
the United States--plus a huge chunk of the heroin, marijuana and
methamphetamine. They operate under the protection--and often with the active
participation-of state and federal police. Mexico's drug cartels have corrupted
the nations' law enforcement so completely that the government cannot seem to
muster--or keep alive--enough honest agents to bring the Arellano brothers
down. Last August, the attorney general announced that he suspected up to 80
percent of the Mexican police were dirty and fired more than 1,000 men. And any
cops the Arellano can't buy, they kill. Their signature touch is to torch the
corpses beyond recognition.
It began about the year 3 B.C.C. (Before Colombian Cocaine). When the Arellano
brothers first came to Tijuana in the mid '80s, bribes were as widespread as
death and paid more religiously than taxes. Mordida ("the bite") was
paid regularly to police and politicians and even the guy who worked on your
phones. "The Arellanos started working here simply because they could [buy] the
authorities," says Victor Clark Alfaro, a longtime local human-rights activist.
"But there was no violence then. The cartels and the corrupted kept a sane
distance. The Arellanos were here openly. They went to the best restaurants, to
the country club."
The brothers were reportedly born into an old and powerful smuggling family in
the state of Sinaloa, a haven for drug traffickers since the '50s. Their age
difference spans 21 years, though information about them is so sketchy that the
U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency is not even sure of their exact birth dates. The
eldest brother, Francisco, 48, was charged with selling eighteen ounces of
cocaine in San Diego in 1980. He fled to Mexico, where he spent most of his
time in Mazatlan, a coastal resort 1,000 miles south of Tijuana. There he was a
developer and owned a discotheque until 1993, when he was imprisoned on arms
His three younger brothers are routinely described in the Mexican press as
"rich, ruthless and movie-star handsome." The least visible brother, but
clearly the man in charge, is the next eldest, Benjamin, born in 1952 or '53.
His DEA file lists at least six aliases and nicknames, including "el Min" and
"the Millionaire," and the photograph police pass out with his WANTED poster
shows him proudly watching a priest baptize his infant son.
The next eldest brother, Ramon, who authorities estimate is 33, is the "wild
one"--fast motorcycles, flashy clothes, a ponytail and a disco-strobe tan. He
was a king of the Tijuana party circuit and, paradoxically, the Catholic
baptism circuit, both of which he used to infiltrate Tijuana's circle of social
elites. One woman told the Los Angeles Times: "Ramon became the
godfather of a number of children in Tijuana. Let's face it, it was often for
the money. He would pay for a big baptism." The youngest, Javier, 27, has scars
from two bullet wounds--reminders of the five assassination attempts he has
survived. He drives a very white Mercedes with very dark windows, uses two
aliases and is said to defer to his brothers.
Benjamin, Ramon and Javier quickly put down roots in Tijuana. They bought homes
in one of its wealthy hillside communities and invested in legitimate
businesses. They were obviously but tastefully rich. "They behaved like
successful citizens," recalls Ernesto Ruffo Appel, governor of Baja California
from 1989 to 1995. "They would turn up with their bodyguards in discos and nice
neighborhoods. People said they were involved with narcotics traffickers, but
no one really knew."
But everyone knew, of course. The brothers were admired by the rich young
Mexicans they partied with in the members-only discos. They were a refreshing
change from the usual drug lords--barrio mutts who flashed and faded like
shooting stars. The Arellanos were cutthroat with class, not prison tattoos.
As they expanded their drug empire, they began to enlist the untested kids from
their nightclubbing clique, who became known in press reports and on police
blotters as "the Juniors." Within a few years, about twenty of these dilettante
gangsters surrounded the Arellanos as key lieutenants. To them, drug running
provided devilishly good sport and plenty of "F-Daddy" money. Arrest was of no
concern--their family crests outranked the tinny badges of Baja's BRIBE ME
"The Juniors weren't so much dedicated to drug trafficking as to the pleasure
of being able to able to do so," wrote the editor of Zeta, a respected
Tijuana weekly. "by virtue of their wealth and power and association with the
Arellanos, the Juniors became untouchables murdering whomever they wished.
Some had been born in San Diego's finest private hospitals and educated in its
most exclusive Catholic schools. Many held both U.S. and Mexican citizenship.
The Juniors passed through the San Ysidro checkpoint outside Tijuana so often
that they were on a first-name basis with American border inspectors. The
Arellanos paid their Juniors up to $15,000 for an afternoon of smuggling.
The amount of cocaine the Arellano brothers smuggled into El Norte in the 1980s
was piddling in comparison with what the Colombian cartels smuggled across the
Caribbean into south Florida. But in the mid '80s, the U.S. government began a
relentless, sophisticated attack on the seagoing routes. And the Colombians
started looking for other methods of delivery.
Arriving by ship and converted jetliners, tons of Colombian cocaine were
unloaded in central and southern Mexico. Trucks, trains, and small planes then
ferried the drugs north to be distributed to smuggling rings along the
2,000-mile U.S.-Mexican border.
The busiest border crossing in North America--37,000 vehicles a day--is the San
Ysidro checkpoint. For years, the Arellano brothers had prudently but
unwillingly shared this turf with Mexico's most powerful trafficker: Joaquin
"el Chapo" Guzman of Sinaloa. Guzman was a master strategist who bought and
sold narcotics on a global scale. When the Colombians chose Tijuana as the main
smuggling route for their cocaine, few doubted that Guzman would crush the
Arellanos and seize control of the cocaine pipeline. Guzman had already stocked
and fortified safe houses throughout Tijuana with grenade launchers, automatic
weapons, night-vision scopes, money vaults and hidden rooms. So certain was
Guzman of victory that he had also spent millions of dollars digging a
1,500-foot tunnel under the border near Tijuana airport.
The Arellano brothers invested their money in bullets. Their operatives
secretly recruited San Diego gang members, who were then trained as assassins.
Most were from the Calle Treinta (30th Street) Gang of Logan Heights, one of
San Diego's oldest barrio neighborhoods. They had street names like Spooky,
Puma and Popeye and were described by local police as "the worst...most
dangerous" gangbangers in the city. A police lieutenant told a reporter that,
when it came to protecting their turf, they are "not afraid to pull a trigger.
They are shooters." The Arellano brothers paid their newly trained mercenaries
a weekly retainer of $1,000, plus several thousand more for actual missions.
Their big payday was the $30,000 bounty on Guzman.
U.S. agents believe a Calle Treinta assassination squad led one of the first
strikes against Guzman in early 1992. Six of Guzman's top lieutenants were
tortured, shot in the back of the head and then dumped along the side of a
Tijuana highway, still bound and gagged. This massacre was a blow against
Guzman's second in command. Hector Luis Palma Salazar, who reportedly had
betrayed the brothers' drug-lord mentor. The Arellano cartel next enlisted a
Venezuelan to seduce Palma's wife and spirit her to San Francisco, where she
withdrew $7 million from her bank account. The Venezuelan then murdered her and
sent her head to Palma in a box. He reportedly finished the job by Palma's
toddler son and daughter off a bridge.
Guzman retaliated that November at a Puerto Vallarta discotheque where Javier
and Ramon were partying with their San Diego mercenaries and some of the
Mexican state police on the Arellano payroll. Before attacking, Guzman ordered
the fourteen-member Puerto Vallarta federal police contingent--which was on
his payroll--to leave town that night. Then about 40 of Guzman's men,
disguised as police, stormed the discotheque firing machine guns. Six people
were killed, but the brothers reportedly escaped by crawling through an
air-conditioning duct in the bathroom.
This gun battle shocked the nation. Sporadic back-alley gang violence was
nothing new, but mass executions and police complicity in commando raids on a
neighborhood nightclub were unheard of.
What happened next was unimaginable. Authorities say that, in late May 1993,
the Arellanos learned that Guzman was in Guadalajara, so one or more brothers
flew in with at least eight of their Calle Treinta mercenaries. When they
spotted Guzman's entourage at the airport, they opened fire and a wild gun
One of the innocent bystanders caught in the cross fire was Cardinal Juan Jesus
Posadas Ocampo of Guadalajara. Andrea A. Reding, a writer on Mexican politics,
testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations about this
incident. In a recent interview, he detailed what happened next: "One of the
Arellano's gunmen opened the cardinal's door," Reding says. "The cardinal was
dressed in black and was wearing a prominent pectoral cross. The gunmen opened
fire with an automatic weapon at a range of three feet. The cardinal was
riddled with fourteen slugs." Also killed were the cardinal's driver and five
In a country that is 80 percent Catholic, the hows and whys of Cardinal
Posada's murder have become Mexico's equivalent of this country's obsession
with the murder of JFK. "The Mexican government," Reding continued, "claims the
Arellano gunman mistook the cardinal for Guzman. The facts suggest
otherwise...though the motive...remains unclear."
Undisputed is the fact that federal police covered the escape of the Arellano
assassins as they fled from the shoot-out. Uncontested is the fact that
Aeromexico Flight 110 to Tijuana was delayed more than twenty minutes to allow
them to board.
Unanswered is the question of why the Mexican government, with two hours to act
before Flight 110 landed, did nothing. Mexican police met the assassins in
Tijuana, but they were there as bodyguards and drivers on the Arellano
The next day, Mexican federales swooped down on the Arellano gang and arrested
eight suspects. Those arrested were mostly Calle Treinta mercenaries. The
government declared the Arellano brothers the "most wanted criminals in Mexico"
and offered a $5 million reward for information leading to their arrest.
Guzman, who had escaped from the Guadalajara airport in a taxi, drove to Mexico
City and then fled into the mountains of neighboring Guatemala. Within two
weeks, Attorney General Jorge Carpizo MacGregor announced that he had been
arrested in Guatemala. As Guzman was paraded before reporters, Carpizo
proclaimed that Mexico "has shown its ability to respond to the shameful events
that have moved the entire nation...to halt impunity and lack of public
safety." Begrudgingly, he allowed: "The problem is that the traffickers have
managed to buy the police."
A more cynical analysis of Guzman's arrest was put forth by Reding during his
Senate testimony two years later: "The government's bold venture into
Guatemalan territory [to capture Guzman was] an arrest that in effect turned
the government into an enforcer for the Arellanos."
The Arellano Brothers did not emerge from this victory unscathed. Devout
Catholics with extraordinarily close ties to the church, they were said to be
tormented by the holy wrath engulfing them. Over the years, the Arellano
brothers had developed a "great friendship" with the Tijuana diocese that "was
always public," according to a November 1995 report in La Jornada, a leading
Mexico City daily.
"Frequently by the Arellano's side," La Jornada reported, were Bishop Emilio
Berlie Belaunzaran and Father Gerardo Montano Rubio of Nuestra Senora de
Guadalupe Church in Tijuana. Even as fugitive drug traffickers, "the Arellano
brothers continued to count on the moral endorsement of Bishop Berlie and
Father Montano, who never concealed their public friendship.
Six months after the cardinal's murder--and with the intervention of the
Tijuana diocese--both Benjamin and Ramon made pilgrimages to Mexico City
declaring their innocence to papal nuncio Girolamo Prigione, the pope's
ambassador to Mexico. Prigione received Ramon at his official residence in
December 1993 and Benjamin a month later; he reportedly absolved them both of
the cardinal's murder, though Prigione denies it. In fact, Reding told the
Senate committee that President Carlos Salinas de Gortari knew that Benjamin
was meeting with Prigiones but "did nothing to apprehend the fugitive."
One possible explanation for the president's inaction came up shortly after
Salinas left office--and the country. The Autonomous National University of
Mexico estimated that during his six-year presidency (1988-94), the drug
cartels paid up to $500 million a year in bribes--allegedly to everyone from
traffic cops to a member of Salinas's immediate family.
Salinas has never been officially linked to drug traffickers, but his brother,
Raul, is in a Mexican prison facing murder charges and under investigation for
drug money laundering. He's denied it under oath. And Salinas's brother-in-law,
Mario Ruiz Massieu, is accused of orchestrating a high-scale bribery scheme
that determined the assignment of corrupt federal prosecutors to drug-smuggling
cases. Massieu is currently under house arrest in New Jersey fighting
Salinas's hand-picked successor, Luis Donaldo Colosio, launched his campaign
for the presidency in January 1994, vowing to crack down on the drug cartels.
He refused to campaign with corrupt regional politicians and also broke
tradition by refusing to meet with emissaries from the cartels. The cartels
apparently got the message.
Colosio was assassinated on March 23, 1994, just three months into the
campaign. he was shot twice at a rally in Tijuana, the Arellano brothers' power
base. Five weeks later, Tijuana's police chief, Jose Federico Benitez Lopez,
was gunned down. Benitez, known as an honest cop, had confided to associates
ten days before his assassination that he had turned down a $100,000 bribe from
a top Arellano lieutenant. Their meeting had ended with a grim exchange, with
each man saying: "Do what you have to do."
Benitez's replacement, Victor Vazquez Fernandez, quickly announced : "I prefer
to secure the safety of Tijuana families than to search for
In January 1995, newly elected president Ernesto Zedillo proclaimed drugs the
preeminent danger to Mexico's security. And his newly appointed general,
Antonio Lozano Garcia, announced he had been given free rein to arrest public
enemies one, two and three: Benjamin, Ramon and Javier Arellano.
The unspoken caveat was that Zedillo and Lozano had determined that much of the
nation's law enforcement was in the pocket of one--or more--of the cartels. And
the most thoroughly corrupted region was Baja, heart of the Arellano empire.
State and federal police "are practically left at the service" of the Arellano
brothers, La Jornada wrote in November 1995.
Former Baja governor Ruffo offered reporters this explanation for the blatant
acquiescence of his state police: "The Arellano brothers' organization grew and
was strengthened through the deliberate act of the federal government." Ruffo,
with some justification, argued that the federal government is ultimately
responsible for drug prosecutions. He even offered an explanation to the
Associated Press for the failure of the fresh-faced agents and prosecutors
Lozano had been dispatching by the planeload from Mexico City to Baja: "I think
they arrive good people," Ruffo said. "But they arrive to a black atmosphere of
corruption. They accept it, or they die at the hands of other agents...or
After eighteen months of floundering, Lozano readied his forces to crush the
Arellano brothers in August 1996. He had just fired some 1,000 federal agents
nationwide, including half the 120-member Baja contingent. And he had launched
two federal dragnets against the brothers called Operations Cancer and
Scorpion. To lead the operations, Lozano hand-picked Ernesto Ibarra Santes, an
agent said to be fearless and honest. Ibarra arrived in Baja with 55 federal
agents he had trained himself.
With refreshing but unquestionable bravado, Ibarra publicly named prominent
Tijuana citizens he considered to be cohorts of the Arellano brothers and vowed
to arrest them. The Los Angeles Times reported that Ibarra believed
"the Arellanos had won their Tijuana turf wars and had become the czars of the
most powerful drug empire on the Pacific corridor, and possibly all of Mexico.
The millions they earned...are invested in a business empire with 150
properties in Tijuana alone--security houses, safe houses, drug warehouses,
hotels, pharmacies, nightspots--which employ 500 people, from foot soldiers and
money launderers to front men."
Ibarra was assassinated September 14--just 28 days after his arrival. He and
two bodyguards were gunned down on a trip to Mexico City--set up by someone
within his organization. Ibarra's 55 agents were immediately placed under heavy
guard and flown out of Tijuana.
A week later, another of Lozano's key commanders, Jorge Garcia Vargas, head of
the National Institute for Combatting Drugs in Tijuana, boasted that his team
was closing in on at least fifteen Tijuana businesses for "narco-trafficking
and money-laundering activities...tied to the Arellano organization." A few
days later, Garcia and five of his agents were tortured, strangled and then
stuffed into the trunks of cars parked in an upscale suburb of Mexico City.
By October 1996, Lozano was clearly losing his war against the Arellano
brothers. All told, at least 44 government agents had been killed. The Arellano
organization had also suffered. Ten of their Juniors had been murdered, and
another seven were in jail.
"We are closer to...efficiently combating and disbanding" the Arellano gang,
Lozano yet again predicted last October. Not close enough, apparently Zedillo
fired Lozano's replacement, Jorge Madrazo Cuellar, chairman of the National
Human Rights Commission, to again clean house. In a dramatic and historic move,
Madrazo immediately appointed an army general, Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, to take
over as Mexico's drug czar.
The general--and the army's squeaky-clean reputation--lasted about two months.
Gutierrez was arrested in late February on suspicion of taking money from the
Arellano brothers' rival, drug lord Amado Carillo Fuentes of the Gulf Cartel.
What is Mexico's next move in this war? Unconditional surrender? "As for the
Arellano brothers," says Carolina Nava, the attorney general's director of
foreign press, "I can't tell you anything." But an American who has studied the
Mexican underworld for two decades believes that the Arellano brothers have
nothing to fear. Peter Lupsha, a professor emeritus at the University of New
Mexico, says, "The Arellano brothers won't be caught anytime soon. They are not
regional players, and they have a track right to the top of the heavily
criminal elite in power. What's going on in Mexico today is beyond fiction."
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