Blood brothersOne was the brains, the other the brute. And as the heads of one of the most violent cartels in the world, they supplied the US with a third of its cocaine. But now Benjamin Arellano Felix has been arrested - and his sociopathic brother Ramon is dead. Julian Borger in Washington and Jo Tuckman in Mexico City on the fall of 'El Min' and 'El Mon'
Julian Borger in Washington and Jo Tuckman in Mexico City
After nine years in hiding, a trail of mutilated victims and thousands of tons of cocaine, Benjamin Arellano Felix, Mexico's most powerful druglord and the supplier of a third of America's cocaine, was finally brought down by the shape of his daughter's chin.
According to no less an authority than the country's defence minister, Ricardo Vega, it stuck out - apparently as a result of an unusual growth - far enough to tell his special forces that they were on the right trail. "Once we knew he was with his family, we could keep track of where he was by keeping track of his daughter with the very prominent chin," Vega boasted on Mexican television.
They followed the girl back to a three-bedroomed house on a suburban cul-de-sac in Puebla, 65 miles from Mexico City, where the neighbours knew the trafficker as an amiable, cigar-puffing, 49-year-old family man called Manuel Trevino. The troops moved in and arrested Arellano Felix at 1am last Saturday, slipping the handcuffs on without a shot being fired. In that anti-climactic manner, a brutal fiefdom was humbled which had once rivalled the power of the Mexican state itself in the Baja peninsula, and straddled the United States border with imperious ease.
The organisation Arellano Felix and his brothers ran was known locally as the Tijuana cartel, after the tawdry, violent border town in which it was based. But the US drug enforcement administration (DEA) always referred to it with respect as the Arellano Felix Organisation, the AFO, and declared it "one of the most powerful, violent and aggressive drug trafficking organisations in the world."
It was an insidious presence in the barrios, suburbs and townships on both sides of the border. Its corruption of all that it touched inspired the film, Traffic, which if anything played down the gang's taste for blood in order to make it bearable to watch.
Over the course of the past decade, the AFO turned a 100-mile corridor between Tijuana and Mexicali into a huge pipeline for cocaine, marijuana and amphetamines. The drugs poured across by car, by boat along the Pacific coast, and even by tunnel.
Last month, police acting on a tip-off searched a farm on the US side of the border and discovered a safe under the stairs. They cracked it open but found it empty and were about to move on when someone spotted that the safe floor was too high. It was a false bottom, and underneath was a shaft descending to a 1,200-ft tunnel, complete with electric lights and rails which had borne billions of dollars of drugs under the US-Mexican border.
Despite the gang's audacity, and despite the fact that it was so well known that it bore the family name, the brothers Benjamin, Ramon, Eduardo and Javier remained untouchable for 13 years. This was done, in part, with prodigious amounts of cash. They bought anonymity, bribing politicians and policemen in bulk, at the cost of an estimated $1m a week.
Those they could not buy, they killed. They murdered with abandon and with apparent relish. Estimates of the toll of victims run from 300 to well over 1,000. They killed witnesses, bystanders, policemen, two police chiefs, several federal police commanders, judges and even a Roman Catholic cardinal, Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo - killed at Guadalajara airport in 1993 when AFO gang members mistook the cardinal's car for that of a rival druglord. The gaffe forced the brothers to lie low and adopt false names, but they continued to live in casual confidence, apparently unafraid of capture.
Thomas Constantine, a former DEA administrator, said that in Tijuana and Baja, the AFO had "become more powerful than the instruments of government in Mexico".
"That is why they are able to operate in the fashion that they operate presently and that is why they are seldom, if ever, brought to justice," he said.
The Arellano Felix brothers won their first big break in 1989, when their uncle went to jail. Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo ran a drug trafficking business out of Tijuana and had employed his nephews from Sinaloa state after they showed early promise smuggling consumer electronics over the border. When Uncle Miguel's luck ran out and he was caught, they inherited the drug route, and turned it into a billion-dollar franchise.
From the start, Benjamin and Ramon led the enterprise - El Min and El Mon they called themselves, in a childlike abbreviation of their names. Benjamin had brains and a certain strategic flair, while Ramon, 11 years his junior, was the enforcer - a task to which he was perfectly suited.
One of nature's sociopaths, he seemed to thrive on murder. He would drive around in a red Porsche, garishly dressed in a mink jacket and heavy gold jewellery, cruising the streets of Tijuana where his cocky style became a magnet for the bored sons of the city's rich. Several of them became Ramon's "narco-juniors", trust-fund hitmen who, when they were not killing for business, killed out of simple ennui.
"Wherever there is danger, that's where you'll find Ramon," a former "narco-junior", Alejandro Hodoyan, told Mexican narcotics agents in 1996 in a taped interview later obtained by the Mexican newspaper, Proceso. "In 1989 or 90, we were at a Tijuana corner without anything to do and he told us... 'Let's go kill someone. Who has a score to settle?' Cars would pass and he'd ask us who we knew. The person we pointed out would appear dead within a week."
Hodoyan later claimed that the police had forced him to say those things. It did not help him. One day, he was grabbed by armed men on the streets of Tijuana, and that was that. His body was never found.
Don Thornhill, a DEA officer who witnessed the AFO's handiwork on both sides of the border, says: "In my 17 years in this job, I've never seen a more violent group. They would kill people who didn't cooperate. They would kill people who didn't pay a fee or a toll (for moving drugs through their territory). They would kill people who were not necessarily disloyal to them. They killed them to set an example."
The AFO set its bloodiest example in a fishing village called El Sauzal, which had the misfortune to be home to a minor-league drug smuggler called Fermin Castro. Castro paid his dues in full and on time, but the AFO evidently decided that he might become too competitive. So on September 17 1998, gunmen arrived in the middle of the night, lined up every man, woman and child they could find against a wall and shot them. A 15-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy were the sole survivors.
Ramon and his narco-juniors did not just murder. They developed a taste for torture and mutilation. One of Thornhill's Mexican colleagues, a prosecutor named Jose Patino Moreno, disappeared from a Tijuana street in April 2000, along with two aides, a special prosecutor, Oscar Pompa Plaza, and a Mexican army captain, Rafael Torres Bernal When their bodies were found near Patino's wrecked car, they were unrecognisable. Almost every bone in their body had been broken ("They were like sacks of ice cubes," a policeman said at the time) and their heads had been crushed in an industrial press.
The local police insisted, absurdly, that the three men had died in "a lamentable traffic incident", and it came as a surprise to nobody that when the AFO's power finally began to wane, two federal police commanders were charged for the Patino killings.
Ramon's own demise was suitably flamboyant. On February 10 he drove a Volkswagen full of narco-juniors down to the beach town of Mazatlan, intending to kill a rival gang leader at the height of the Mardi Gras carnival. But they drove the wrong way down a one-way street into a police patrol who spotted their guns. A shoot-out ensued and the day ended with three corpses on Mazatlan's festive streets.
One of bodies was carrying an identity card in the name of Jorge Perez Lopez (a Mexican version of John Smith) but by the time the police realised that the card was bogus, the body had vanished. Some "relatives" had taken it off the hands of the local undertaker, who had been reduced to silent fear by the encounter.
It was only when the police looked closely at the photographs from the crime scene that they realised that they might have killed Ramon Arellano Felix, one of the FBI's 10 most-wanted fugitives, and the most prolific murderer in modern Mexican history.
With Ramon's death the AFO seems to have lost its sheen of invincibility. The spell was broken and Benjamin Arellano Felix clearly knew it. He had his bags packed and was ready to flee with a wallet stuffed with $100 notes when the soldiers came for him in the early hours of Saturday morning. Inside the house in Puebla, they also came across a shrine to Ramon.
Ramon's death and Benjamin's arrest set off government celebrations on both sides of the border. The DEA administrator, Asa Hutchinson, declared himself "ecstatic". It was, he said, "a great day for law enforcement".
The Mexican president, Vicente Fox, also declared it "a great triumph for justice", but for him it was far more than that. He is a reformist politician struggling to gain control over the unwieldy, occasionally anarchic nation he was elected to lead. The victory over the AFO is an important step towards real sovereignty.
For his part, Don Thornhill celebrated quietly. He took his children out sailing. He is well aware that the surviving Arellano Felix brothers will now try to gain control of the AFO, and that its rivals will attempt to take a share of its drug routes. Life could become even more unpredictable and violent.
The one sure thing in all this is that drugs will continue to flow and in a few weeks or months, Thornhill promises, "it will be business as usual".
Mexico is stuck between the implacable forces of supply and demand. Cocaine is still being churned out to the south, in Colombia and elsewhere, and the American consumption of narcotics shows no sign of abating. "We in the US have to look long and hard at ourselves," the DEA man says. "We have an insatiable desire for drugs and unless we can get a handle on the demand, we are not going to get anywhere."
Benjamin Arellano Felix
The Drug War in Mexico 2008
The US 'War On Cocaine' is lost
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