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The Arellano-Felix Tijuana Cartel: A Family Affair

The cause of death listed for Jose "Pepe" Patino Moreno and his two colleagues was "cranialencephalic trauma." In layman's terms, their heads had been crushed. According to Mexican investigators, Patino, a special prosecutor for the Mexican attorney general's drug unit, and two fellow agents, endured torture rivaling that of medieval times. Investigators say the brutal killings were typical of the Arellano-Felix brothers, arguably the most vicious drug cartel in Mexico. The deaths were just three of dozens attributed to the family in 2000, in a city that can be seen from the wide sprawling freeways of southern San Diego. In a sense, the April 11 discovery of the bodies - at the bottom of a ravine next to the men's wrecked car - was no surprise. Moreno and his colleagues were building a case against the drug running family -- by no overestimation the equivalent of a death wish. They join two Tijuana police chiefs and dozens of prosecutors, police, lawyers and journalists whose deaths have been tied to the drug organization. Also known as the "Tijuana Cartel," the Arellano-Felix Organization is from Baja California. They smuggle cocaine, marijuana -- and more recently methamphetamines -- across the border to California, laundering the proceeds in both countries.

Within the AFO, drug running is a family affair. Seven brothers and four sisters, inherited the Tijuana Cartel from Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo in 1989, after he was arrested for his involvement in the murder of DEA Special Agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena. The family's most visible leaders, brothers Benjamin and Ramon Arellano, have eluded authorities on both sides of the border for years. Both remain fugitives, with U.S. authorities offering a $2 million reward for their capture. Ramon has earned a place on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list. Known to be technically savvy, the AFO employs a combination of complex communications systems and police corruption for counter surveillance. Patino's kidnappers knew where to find him the day he was abducted. He and the agents were taken minutes after crossing into Mexico through the Otay border crossing, just east of San Diego. Many kidnappings tied to the AFO have reportedly been carried out by corrupt police.

In other cases, the AFO has hired Hispanic gang members from San Diego as assassins , or recruited sons of well-to-do Mexican families, commonly referred to as "Narco-Juniors." Both groups are valued commodities because they have U.S. citizenship and can travel between countries at will.

This year has been especially bloody. Many law enforcement officials attribute the unusually high amount of violence in Tijuana to recent arrests of major AFO players. The organization suffered several setbacks when the Mexican government arrested some of the cartel's highest-ranking members - just months before the most competitive presidential election in modern Mexican history. Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo issued an ultimatum to the Arellano-Felix brothers on February 25, 2000. Two days later Tijuana's police chief, Alfredo De la Torre Márquez, was ambushed and killed as he drove along the Tijuana River Canal. It was Sunday, and De la Torre was not driving his bullet-proof car. On March 11, Zedillo sent in the military to capture the Tijuana cartel's alleged financial mastermind, Jesús "Chuy" Labra Avilés, as he watched his son play football in Tijuana. Three days after his arrest, the body of Labra's lawyer was found wrapped in a blanket and dumped on a Mexico City street. A second lawyer for Labra was killed less than four months later -- shot four times as he sat in his car next to his wife.

The Mexican government dealt another serious blow to the Arellano-Felix Organization on May 3, when Mexican soldiers and federal agents nabbed Ismael "El Mayel" Higuera Guerrero, the cartel's chief lieutenant. Higuera Guerrero has been blamed for 40 murders-- including the murder of police chief De la Torre --and has been linked to the murder of the three anti-drug agents.

But when it comes to capturing AFO members, efforts between the United States and Mexico have proved lukewarm. On one hand, the U.S. has joined the Mexican government in mounting an intelligence-sharing operation in San Diego. But recent violence has even forced United States agencies to question their own safety in Tijuana. The DEA, FBI and others have pondered pulling their agents out of Tijuana.

In the meantime, U.S. authorities in San Diego continue attempts to tighten the noose on the AFO. On May 11th, following Higuera Guerrero's arrest, prosecutors unsealed a 10-count indictment accusing brothers Benjamin and Ramon Arellano-Felix of ordering a string of murders and kidnappings in Mexico. The indictment also charges the cartel leaders with shipping large quantities of drugs from Mexico into Southern California using violence, intimidation and bribery to maintain power and at least one attempted murder in the United States. If arrested and convicted in the U.S., the brothers face life in prison and fines of $27 million. Meanwhile, the crackdown on the cartel continues to spark a "tit for tat" war of revenge in Baja California.

· Learn more about the members of the AFO

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