Feature Articles

May 2000

The Mexican Mafia
And The Battle For Tijuana

By John William Tuohy

John William Tuohy is a writer who lives in Washingon, D.C.

It was a gruesome sight. Looking down in the ditch off the side of a rural road, it was difficult to separate the remnants of the three dead bodies from the red clay of the ground. The lawmen were rigid with death. They had been tortured and their skulls had been crushed by a 3-1/2 ton truck.

The Tijuana police claimed the men had died as a result of a car accident. But the murder of the three federal Mexican narcotics agents were revenge killings for the April arrest of the much feared Arellano Felix drug cartels alleged financial controller, Jesus "El Chuy" Labra, who is described as the cartels "Godfather" and financial wizard.

Right after the gruesome murder of the three narcotics officer, the cartel, which is in its final death throws, brought the world's attention to Tijuana again when the city's police chief, Alfredo de la Torre, was murdered by four gunmen, who sprayed his car with over 100 bullets. The gunmen were allegedly acting on orders from a drug lord based in the northwestern state of Sinaloa. The murder came just two days after Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo issued a new call to crack down on the cartels. The killing was the Arellano Felix gang's answer to the challenge. Mob hit men gunned down Tijuana's previous police chief and the new chief has three bodyguards, one more than de la Torre. The local newspaper editor has survived one drive-by assassination attempt that killed one of his bodyguards. Currently, 10 armed men now guard his house.

The murders and attempted murders were followed up in late April with the killing of Williams Roman Garcia, head of the state judicial police's investigation's unit. He was shot dead while driving a pickup truck in Culiacan, the state capital, by gunmen who used AK-47 assault rifles, the weapon of choice of Mexican drug cartels.

In the past, the cartels have attempted a daylight car jacking of the Presidents eldest son and a newly appointed federal police chief, who had promised to oust corrupt police officials, was gassed in his sleep and left brain damaged. In 1993, assassins working for the Tijuana cartel killed Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo and six others at the Guadalajara airport. Four state police officers were later accused of acting as the killers' bodyguards. Luis Donaldo Colosio, the handpicked successor of then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, was widely regarded as an honest reformer. As a result, he was killed at a Tijuana rally. A few weeks later, the Tijuana police chief who was investigating the possibility that state police were involved in Colosio's murder was also assassinated.

The violent border city of Tijuana is home to the busiest border crossing on Earth, and is the primary main port of entry for drugs into the States and is also the center of operation for the Arellano Felix cartel.

Since 1985 the Arellano Felix they have evaded the law through a web of corrupt US and Mexican officials, and as a result, the mob's leadership has passed the normal ten year life expectancy of most Mexican drug lords.

Another reason the gang has survived as long as it has, is that until recently, the US and Mexican governments were concentrating on the cocaine-trafficking Gulf Cartel which is entranced in Ciudad Juarez. However, its Godfather, Amado Carrillo, died on a Mexico City surgeon's table several years ago, the victim of a botched liposuction. After that, the government's attention shifted to the Arellano Felix cartel.

The unique aspect of the Arellano Felix is that it's highly organized and could continue to operate under the leadership of second string players, when the currant leaders are jailed, which, is what is happening.

Ismael "El Mayel" Higuera Guerrero, the Arellano Felix cartel's second in command and reputed head of operations was arrested as a result of an anonymous tip from a neighbor who was fed up with loud partying and pistol-firing at a house near the town of Ensenada in Baja California state. The police believe Guerrero was in charge of drug smuggling, executions, kidnapping's and bribery.

As two policemen approached the house where Guerrero was hiding, near the town of Ensenada in Baja California state, they were fired upon. A heavily armed squad from the Army's anti-drug squad were called in and stormed the house while under fire from Guerrero, who was hiding on the second floor, firing a rifle. Police tossed tear gas into the house and Guerrero was arrested for the 1993 murder of a member of the Mexican attorney general's office who had tried to arrest him, and for drug trafficking.

While we might be watching the end of the beginning of the end for the Arellano-Felix drug cartel, it's doubtful that we will ever be able to stop the flow of dope from Mexico into the US. The odds are against us. We share a 2,100 mile border with Mexico, a frontier that is the transit route for more than half the cocaine consumed in the United States. Worse yet, Mexico is a major marijuana producer and an increasingly important producer of heroin and methamphetamines.

And even if the US and Mexican governments can win back Tijuana for the forces of light, there's still Mexicali, another border town that is the center for another league drug traffickers, just as violent as the Arellano Felix. Mexican authorities have also discovered a new, well organized, drug trafficking mob smuggling heroin into the United States. The new outfit is thought to operate out of the central Mexican state of Zacatecas. The government also suspects that this new group is also operating drug laboratories and "cut up", garage's where cars are altered to hide drugs for transport.

As a result of the increased pressure on the Mexican boarders, the South and Central American drug cartels are said to be switching their smuggling routes back to the tried and true Caribbean and Panama. However, Mexico is still a major producer of marijuana, opium poppy and methamphetamines.

The largestpoint working against the United States is the fact that Mexico's police forces are distinguished for their corruption. Police commanders allegedly charge junior officers "quotes" or a percentage of the bribes they expect them to take every week. One former Mexican Attorney General estimated that at least half of Mexico's federal police chiefs and attorney generals receive illegal payoffs from drug dealers and said that bribes make police chief posts so lucrative, that some candidates pay $1 to $2 million just to get hired.

US authorities say that the ruthless Arellano Felix drug cartel owns hundreds of federal, municipal and state police are on the outfit's payroll which comes to the millions of dollars each month. The expense is still only a drop in the bucket when compared to the billions of dollars the mob makes through selling cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamines and heroin.

The cartel is allegedly led by brothers Ramon Eduardo, Benjamin and Javier Arellano Felix. Ramon Eduardo is on the U.S. FBI's "Ten Most Wanted" list. The gang is blamed for hundreds of executions over the past ten years in the Tijuana and San Diego areas.

Jorge Francisco Miranda, head of confiscated goods at the federal Attorney General's Office, the PRG, Mexico's top agency in combating the multibillion dollar drug trade, failed to heed a summons to appear before investigators, who now believe he is either dead or has fled the country.

Miranda's boss, Juan Manuel Izabal, was found dead in his car on March 8 with a 9-mm pistol by his side in what the PGR determined was a suicide. A few days before his death, officials discovered $700,000 in a strongbox in Izabal's name at a Citibank branch in Mexico. Other safety deposit boxes in his name contained a total of $1.6 million in cash.

Izabal left suicide notes saying the origin of his wealth was "difficult to explain", but denied the money came from the Mexican Mafia.

Police are also investigating dozens of "phantom" workers on the PGR payroll which was managed by Izabal. Miranda and Izabal worked closely together controlling millions of dollars worth of goods seized from the drug traffickers.

Federal agents recently attempted to pull over a car known to be carrying drugs, only to find out that the car was being escorted by the local police who fired on the agents, causing a gun battle that left five dead.

But the violence and corruption also reaches into the highest points of power in Mexico.

Army General Gutierrez Rebollo, former head of Mexico's anti-drug effort was recently convicted to 71 years in prison promoting the transportation of cocaine for organized crime and for accepting bribes from the powerful Juarez drug cartel who used the General to crack down on its rivals.

The former Mexican president's brother, Raul Salinas de Gortari, has been arrested on charges of having ordered and financed the assassination of Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu, the second highest ranking member of an opposition party.

The case turned to the bizarre when the FBI in Newark New Jersey arrested the brother of the slain leader and a former chief investigator in the case, Mario Ruiz Massieu, who is also a former Mexican Deputy Attorney General

Massieu was fleeing with a ticket to Madrid, $40,000 in cash, and $10 million more stashed in European bank accounts. He was charged with obstructing his own investigation into his brother's murder and taking bribes from the drug cartels in exchange for protection.

Other high placed government officials suspected of having ties to the Mexican Mafia, is president's secretary of communications and transportation and the minister of agriculture, whose son is widely reputed to have ties to the Tijuana drug cartel.

And if you think this is a problem that's only south of the boarder, well, think again. The Mexican Mobs are exploding growth all over the United States as well. From Manhattan to East LA, gangs like the Mexican Boys, Los Vatos Locos, Los Ni�os, the Crazy Homies and the El Esquadr�n, with membership in the hundreds, rule with unquestioned authority and with an estimated 200,000 illegal young Mexican men in the city, there's no shortage of recruits.

The emergence of ethnic street gangs is almost an American tradition, but it's the level and frequency of violence of the Mexican gangs that separates them from the Irish, Jewish and Italian gangs of the past. In Brooklyn, New York, two Mexican men were brutally murdered, shot and stabbed, after trying to enter a christening party. When his uncle came to his aid, he was beaten, bound and blindfolded, taken to a building basement, beaten with a baseball bat and sodomized at knife point and then had his throat slit with a switchblade.

Ten members of the dreaded Los Ni�os Malos (The Mean Children) were convicted of a gang raping an 18-year-old girl, a member of the gang's female counterpart, Las Ni�as Malas, because she was suspected of having an affair with a member of a rival gang.

In Los Angeles, police estimate that there are nearly 41,000 Mexican gang members who are suspected of committing 40 murders in six months.

The so called California Mexican Mafia, the oldest and wealthiest of the gangs, was first organized in late 1950s by inmates from several barrios who were locked away together. Today, the outfit has an estimated 1,200 to perhaps 1,600 members, with an additional 400 to 500 behind bars where new recruits are taken. The organization has controlled narcotics' distribution, gambling and prostitution at most California and Arizona state prisons and large portions of Los Angeles and southern California.

In 1996, the Mexican Mafia allegedly extorted film Actor Edward James Olmos, whose film "American Me" angered the mob's leadership and there was some concern over his safety after the films release, when two former gang members who acted as consultant to the movie were killed.

The 1992 film, which Olmos directed and starred in, is the harsh story of a Mexican Mafia leader being sodomized and killed by his own comrades. Olmos denies that he handed over money and real estate to the gangsters, but Police have long suspected that the actor was targeted by the gangs.

Currently, the relationship between the Mexican-based drug cartels and the enormous Mexican-American gangs is tenuous, but, recently, the FBI, using the RICO act, broke up a ring of Mexican thugs, working with the cartels, who were attempting to organize drug trafficking among hundreds of Mexican and South American street gangs in Southern California.

Mr. Tuohy can be reached at

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