Mexico City Declaring one of the world's most powerful drug gangs "dismantled," Mexican authorities announced the capture of Tijuana drug mobster Benjamin Arellano Felix on Saturday while confirming the death of his brother Ramon in a police shootout last month.
The blows to the Tijuana cartel are significant because it is thought to control one-quarter of all cocaine entering the United States from Mexico. Both brothers were on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's most wanted list and carried $2 million bounties for their arrests.
Both also had eluded justice for a decade, protected by layers of corrupt police, judges and politicians in Mexico who had been co-opted by millions of dollars in bribes or intimidated by death threats that Ramon himself allegedly thrilled in carrying out.
The downfall of the Arellano Felix brothers by no means brings the flow of drugs from Mexico to the United States to a halt. It could, in fact, raise the curtain on a bloody new struggle for power both within and outside the gang for the control of the lucrative Western drug-smuggling corridor.
Crusading Tijuana journalist Jesus Blancornelas said other members of the numerous Arellano Felix clan might step into the leadership breach. Brother Eduardo, a 48-year-old doctor, is the most likely to emerge as the new leader, said Blancornelas, who survived an Arellano Felix-led assassination attempt in 1997.
But the arrest of Benjamin, 49, the brains and chief executive of the cartel, and the death of Ramon, a ruthless enforcer responsible for hundreds of killings, drives a stake into a many-tentacled crime syndicate. Mexican and U.S. officials lauded the armed forces' arrest of Benjamin early Saturday as one of the most important blows struck yet against Mexican narco-traffickers.
"It is a great triumph for justice and for the Mexican army ... and just one step in the work we have to do this year," President Vicente Fox said in a statement. Fox's government has arrested several midlevel narco-traffickers since taking office 15 months ago, but a "big fish" had eluded it until Saturday.
In the United States, the arrest of Benjamin, who guided the growth of the cartel, was seen by many as the clearest sign yet that the Fox administration is serious about the war on drugs.
In Washington, D.C., U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency chief Asa Hutchinson lauded Fox in a telephone interview for "going after this very powerful and very violent organization. ... No one thought it could be done. The full credit goes to the Mexican government."
Charles La Bella, a former U.S. attorney in San Diego who helped lead the government's anti-drug efforts there during most of the 1990s, said Fox's arrest of Benjamin and of several other drug kingpins in the last year represents the biggest burst of "anti-drug activity from Mexico in the last 30 years.
"But unless there is credible and consistent law enforcement commitment in Mexico to attack drug trafficking, this is just going to be a change of names (at the top)," said La Bella, now an attorney in private practice in San Diego.