drug wars

special reports
interview: heidi landgraff & vince de la montaigne


photo of heidi landgraff

Landgraff is a group supervisor at the DEA in San Diego. She is currently investigating the Arellano Felix cartel and their distributors inside the United States.
photo of vince de la montaigne

De La Montaigne is a retired special agent for the FBI and was stationed in San Diego, California for seven years. He was supervisor of the Arellano Felix Cartel Task Force.

This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted in 2000.

Why do drug dealers like the Arellanos deserve a special task force?

VDLM:  They have grown in scope. Fifteen, twenty years ago they were down in Sinaloa, you know, a family raising or harvesting marijuana, driving truckloads. Now they're heads of this organization, these brothers. And they are bringing in tons of cocaine. They have set up partnerships with Colombia. The cocaine and the marijuana and the heroin and methamphetamine comes through the United States, and it doesn't just stay in San Diego. In fact, very little stays here. It goes throughout the country. It's distributed nationally. And this could wind up in the Milwaukees of the world, the New Yorks of the world, the Philadelphias, the Miamis. So it's a total importation distribution system that they're in charge of. And they use violence as their threat to make sure that they are the only ones distributing through Baja California and through San Diego and imperial counties. This is their territory, and this is our responsibility on the US side of the border.

Does the violence extend to this side of the border?

VDLM:  Of course it does. The majority is south of the border. But there is violence on this side. We've had people shot. We've had carjackings for cocaine. You've had gang members that become part of their organization that live on this side and on the other side. It's a very violent organization. . . .

How do the Arellanos continue to survive?

VDLM:  It's frustrating, because Ramon Arellano Felix is a Top Ten fugitive who's being investigated every day by offices throughout this country. We believe that he's in Mexico. But also, he's a Top Ten. He's a head of an organization for a reason. He's smart. He's powerful. He's intelligent. And because of that, he surrounds himself with people and insulates himself and protects himself. The information that Heidi and I and others have received is that he travels with no less than five or six vans, or Suburbans, full of bodyguards. So it's a very, very difficult operation to pin him down and then to make an arrest on him...

Can you explain people's deep fear of the Arellanos, and why they are perceived as being so smart?

HL:  I don't know how smart they are. They use their violence to create such fear in people where an informant may start to talk to us, and they decide to kill his father or his mother. So there's compelling reasons why people are fearful. I think the way they operate is the lowest level of humanity. . . . I just think they operate with violence more than they do with smarts. The intimidation is to the point where people are so fearful of their lives or their children's lives or families that they would rather hide themselves than come forward and talk about them. . . .

What distinguishes the way the Arellanos operate?

HL:  Just the torture--sometimes they'll make them stand and watch as they slice someone open. It's inhumane. It's ridiculous. And so if that person were to come forward or to talk to someone else, they, too, know that that would happen to them. And Ramon Arellano and others have surrounded themselves with like personalities that are inhumane, as far as I'm concerned...

VDLM:  Here they go out and shoot five or ten or fifteen or twenty [people]. Tijuana, in the month of January, had 40 or 45 murders, a lot of them are attributed to narcotics trafficking. And it continues that way. Encinada had that whole family of 18 people murdered there a year and a half ago. So they're ruthless. And fear and violence is their way of gaining control over the population. So how would you have a witness there to come forward to either the Mexican law officials or to United States officials and be willing to put their lives on the line to cooperate against this ruthless organization? They and their immediate family may be safe, but their neighbors, their friends, their grandmothers or grandfathers, aunts and uncles are all in jeopardy after that. It's not worth it...

What have you done to specifically combat the Arellanos?

HL:  On this side, we've taken off cell heads that have had direct communication with Arellano members. . . . So to say that there's been nothing done, that we haven't hurt them at all, is incorrect. We've taken off large drug shipments. We've arrested a lot of people on this side. Granted, the lieutenants and the brothers remain out there.

What are "cell heads?"

HL:  A cell head would be a person that lives in Los Angeles or San Diego and is a command and control type of person who may direct the narcotics distribution. They may be in control of taking it to Los Angeles and then on to Boston, to Miami, to New York. Their network is throughout the United States. They're going to have people who are in charge of drug distribution and they're going to have people in charge of getting the money back to Mexico.

How much money is involved?

VDLM:  I can't give you any estimates on a take, but it's millions. You're talking tons of cocaine, and you're talking $12,000-15,000 a kilo, and you're moving tons of it through the United States, and hundreds and thousands of pounds of marijuana at $500 a pound. It's millions of dollars. And it's going back and forth in probably bulk shipments, to the best of our knowledge. I think they're a little bit smart that way, because they know enough about asset forfeiture and the United States laws. I believe that most of their money has been going back south of the border or to Colombia to other islands or safe havens, rather than investing in the United States, where we have laws and the powers to do something about it, and to seize it.

How do the traffickers get their money south?

VDLM:  How do you stop it? You see the border. You look at San Ysidro. There are hundreds, thousands of cars going through that port every day. You put boxes in the trunk of the car or secret it in a hidden compartment. Those Customs and INS inspectors have no chance of catching that money, unless we get a good tip. It's easy and it's down there and it's a duffel bag full of money, full of hundreds. There is corruption on both sides. We've taken steps with a border corruption task force to address some of that. In the last five years, officials from the US federal agencies have been convicted and incarcerated for taking money. . . . Traffickers look for an official to pass through these loads. And if you want to pay someone $25,000 or $50,000 or $100,000 to wave a car or a truck or a van through, it's there. These people may be making $30,000-$40,000 a year out there. You offer them that to wave a car through with a newspaper in a window or some code and they're going to do it. And we have taken steps and we have convicted people doing that.

Explain how this is a bi-national corruption problem.

HL:  Various gang members here in San Diego . . . have been recruited by the Arellanos. They even train them in weaponry. And they can commit murders on that side and try to hide on this side. We've worked with Mexico and we've extradited a few gang members that way. They've assisted us in searching for some in Mexico as well. . . . We just happen to sit on one of the busiest ports of entry in the world. Fifty thousand cars a day come through. They've chosen a very interesting, lucrative way to bring drugs in, just by the sheer numbers of people that cross the border. The whole southwest border is 2,000 miles in length. So this is the place where they're going to choose to come through...

There have been rumors that the Arellanos were operating on both sides of the border for quite a while. If these rumors are true, why can't anybody find them?

VDLM:  In the last four or five years that we've been together out on the task force, we don't see them on the US side of the border. Any possible lead in the United States is investigated fully and swiftly. We've been to fights. We've been at residences. We've been conducting surveillance. We've done everything we can to find them. I don't believe that these people are coming to the United States on a frequent or infrequent basis at this time.

Now you're overseas, over into another country. So you have the same problems you have in any other country. I mean, they may be down there. If we get information we may not be able to corroborate it as much as we would on the United States side, but we pass the information through our legal attaches and liaison offices. Then it's up to the other law enforcement agencies in the other countries to act upon it...

Explain "narco juniors."

HL:  . . . Ramon Arellano would associate himself with wealthy young men in Tijuana--I guess they frequented the same places--and ended up recruiting men that really did not need to go into narcotics trafficking. They're sons of wealthy businessmen and affluent people in Tijuana. Suddenly they went from possibly taking over their parents' business to a life of crime. We've heard stories of how they maybe would protect Ramon one time and the next time they'd be forced to kill someone. They'd call it "being baptized." And then all of a sudden, they were into that world and they were paid quite well for it. At the same time, aside from going around and committing assassinations for the organization, they would also traffic on the side. Some of those juniors went to school here in the United States, as the cross-border influence. Some spoke English well. They dressed very nicely. They are not tattooed individuals like someone in a gang. So they could be sitting next to you in a restaurant and you wouldn't know that. And many of them are now in jail in Mexico. Some are still on the loose.

VDLM:  One person, [Rodriguo Radenhouser,] a member pretty closely associated with the Arellano-Felix organization, was just found assassinated--murdered--in Tijuana on January 24. He was our one contact in the case, and now he's dead. They were trafficking. It's a very, very ruthless organization. "Narco juniors" are just younger males in their twenties. That's where the term probably came from.

In some cases, were they American citizens?

VDLM:  Yes. . . .

What is the current status of your search for the Arellanos?

VDLM:  As of this date, they haven't been arrested. We are hoping, we are trying, on a daily basis to indict and arrest them.

HL:  It's the money that keeps them going. The reason that they're in business, obviously, is the money. There have been examples of Cali cartel members who had invested in the community and who have bought businesses and could have survived as multimillionaires for the rest of their lives. But the Arellanos kept at it. That's a lot of ego. It's their make-up. They're criminals. They could have left that criminal life a long time ago, and they chose to stay in it until they were dead--until the Colombia national police, together with other law enforcement agencies, tracked many of them down. They could have gone legitimate a long time ago.

Where do the Arellanos put all their money?

HL:  There may be some businesses that they invest in. We know that there are properties. They're all done in straw, of course, in other persons' names, which makes it difficult for law enforcement there. The name Maria Gonzalez--what does that mean to someone? Just like a Jane Doe here. Very difficult to track. In that way, they're going to cover their tracks, just like they have in other countries.

Is the level of violence in Tijuana bound to increase or decrease in the future?

VDLM:  Well, I think any turf battle's going to turn up bodies. I mean, absolutely, positively. It's been violent for years. Is it continuing? So far, this year, it is. You've got 40 to 60 deaths already this year in Tijuana. They will continue. Where it'll end, I don't know. I would hope that they'd be arrested at some point. You must go with the hope, otherwise your job is fruitless. We'll continue to investigate distribution cells, importation cells, corruption on this side. We'll do what we can to take people off. We continue with information that may give us the information where they can be located on a timely basis. We pass it along. Maybe they're arrested. That's what we must hope for. I think we're making progress every year. But is it difficult? Absolutely.

HL:  It's like heart disease. It's not solved, but there are methods, there are things that you can do to stop it, and to continue on. We're not going to hold up our hands and go away just because these guys aren't in jail. Mexico's arrested many other of the large traffickers in the past. Many of them are still in jail. So we're going to continue on against them. I'm sure sooner or later they will be either dead by their own means, because they've created so many enemies themselves--rival traffickers will shoot them--or Mexican law enforcement will capture them. Those are some of the options that we've at least seen from history that will happen to people in this line of work. They don't tend to survive forever.

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