Araujo's past paints a history of the Calle Treinta gang during the 1980s, according to court records and authorities. His first arrest as an adult, according to records, came 10 years ago for a brawl in which he took on 14 adversaries and left one with 10 stitches in the head. A lawyer appealed for leniency, describing Araujo, a U. S. citizen, as an upholstery worker and city college student.
But records show Araujo returning repeatedly to jail: for carrying a dagger, associating with gang members, violating probation, using and dealing PCP, carrying a false ID. He was at the thick of the war with hated neighbors such as Barrio Sherman and Shelltown; he witnessed at least two homeboys killed in shootings near his house across from Memorial Park, according to records and police.
Police describe the gang as one of the most dangerous and active in the city.
"They are the worst gang in San Diego," Officer David Contreras said. "The most violent."
But in the past, the gangsters strayed from their turf only as far as Compton, to purchase PCP, which they dealt in small quantities, police said.
Like other Latino gang members, they generally regarded Tijuana as a place to carouse, especially Avenue Revolucion, the garish tourist strip. Except for occasional skirmishes when rivals crossed paths at discos, a healthy fear of hard-nosed Mexican police kept them out of trouble south of the border.
That began to change about two years ago. Authorities say a legendary, tough ex-convict known as "Charlie," a \o7 veterano\f7 in his 30s who moved back and forth across the border frequently, became a lieutenant of the Arellanos.
Ordered to recruit gunmen, Charlie returned to the Logan Heights neighborhood. He and Araujo sought out younger homeboys, police say. The qualifications were apparently basic.
"They are shooters," said San Diego's Lt. Gonzalez. "They are not afraid to pull a trigger."
"Spooky" was typical, authorities say. Described as an angry 24-year-old, Ramon Torrres Mendez had served time for drug sales, weapons violations and a 1992 assault in which he fired at a man trying to stop gang members from stealing his car at a beach, according to records.
Those who ended up on the Arellano payroll came mostly from Calle Treinta, although a few belonged to other Logan Heights gangs. They received weekly retainers of up to $1,000 and special training with an arsenal of AK-47s (popular assault rifles in Mexico known as "goat horns" because of the curved ammunition clips), grenade launchers and other military hardware. Bonuses for specific jobs ranged into the thousands of dollars.
Since early 1992, an unprecedented wave of drug-related shootings has flared on both sides of the border as the Arellanos warred with rival factions. San Diego gangsters are suspected in numerous killings, according to law enforcement officials, including drive-by murders in Tijuana in which victims were sprayed from passing cars; the torture-slayings of six Sinaloan traffickers in Tijuana last year, and the recent shooting in a San Diego alley of a Logan gang member for an unknown transgression against the cartel.
Arellano mercenaries also traveled throughout Mexico on contract hits, investigators said. Rumors even link them to the April slaying of Rafael Aguilar Guajardo, a Juarez-based kingpin who was on vacation in Cancun when six assailants with automatic rifles cut him down, according to a law enforcement source. The fusillade also killed a woman tourist from Illinois standing next to Aguilar.
The San Diego gangsters gained enough status to serve as personal bodyguards for cartel leaders.
"When the Arellanos traveled throughout Mexico, from six to 10 guys always accompanied them," a law enforcement official said.
Corrupt cops and rich Mexican youths, known as "Juniors," rounded out the entourage. The homeboys hung out at the Arellanos' ranch on the outskirts of Tijuana, a palace of hoodlum-chic with a private menagerie and billiard tables. Parties filled the night with Sinaloan cowboy music and automatic weapons fire, according to neighbors.
Back in the barrio, residents began to hear rumors and noticed that gangsters disappeared for weeks at a time. Popeye Araujo was among those who relocated to Tijuana, authorities say. Vazcones was tooling around in a new car, living it up.
"He was going to Puerto Vallarta, Cancun, Mazatlan," a neighbor said. "He had his little cellular phone, a pager, people with nice cars coming over. I thought, 'This guy is getting into it big time.' "
Although the cartel's free-flowing bankroll neutralized Mexican law enforcement, the forces of rival Mexican drug lord Joaquin (Chapo) Guzman represented a constant danger. A photo of Guzman adorned the wall of the bodyguards' crash pad in Colonia Chapultepec, a fashionable Tijuana neighborhood. "Don't forget this face," the homeboys were told.