MEXICO CITY — The hit on Amado Carrillo Fuentes happened so fast that no one at the Ochoa Bali Hai restaurant was sure at first what had just occurred.
Nearly a dozen assassins strode through the front door of the chic seafood restaurant carrying machine guns like briefcases, witnesses said. They moved toward the table where alleged drug baron Carrillo, his wife and their six children were finishing their meal. Then, just before 10 p.m., they opened fire.
Within seconds, they killed three of Carrillo's bodyguards and an architect they apparently mistook for Carrillo. In the bloody confusion, Carrillo and his family dived under the table. Afterward, they walked out of the restaurant and simply drove away.
In the ensuing two years, Mexican and U.S. investigators have learned much about the target of the attack--and about the power and leadership of the increasingly sophisticated Mexican drug cartels that are flooding U.S. cities with cocaine and heroin.
The hit men, Mexican investigators now say, were badge-carrying cops on the payroll of the nation's most-wanted drug lord, alleged Gulf cartel chief Juan Garcia Abrego. Presumably, they were sent to assassinate his top rival.
But some of Carrillo's bodyguards--five of whom escaped the hit--also carried police badges. And Mexican investigators believe that Carrillo has used his own police contacts, his considerable management skills and a sudden vacuum of power in Mexico's drug gangs to take his ultimate revenge.
Today, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says, the 39-year-old Carrillo has emerged as Mexico's No. 1 drug lord. With rival Garcia Abrego on the FBI's most-wanted list and believed to be hiding in northern Mexico, the dynamic Carrillo and his Ciudad Juarez cartel have quietly inherited much of the Gulf cartel's cocaine trade across the Texas border, say agents in both countries.
They say Carrillo has plugged into the California smuggling routes of two other Mexican drug groups, the Pacific and Sinaloa cartels, whose leaders have been arrested one by one in recent years. And, like Garcia Abrego before him, they say, Carrillo has built his empire on personal contacts in the Colombian cocaine cartels as well as on the protection he has bought from Mexican police and politicians.
But the real secret to Carrillo's success, investigators say, is that in recent years he has favored negotiation over assassination--effectively neutralizing the drug wars that have characterized Mexico's narcotics underground in the past.
So effective is Carrillo's style that U.S. agents now call his alleged empire "the Mexican federation" of drug cartels. They say this kingdom is a loosely knit, white-collar cooperative whose members share intelligence, equipment and smuggling routes the way they once exchanged gunfire.
An illustration of the federation's effectiveness, some investigators believe, came two weeks ago, when U.S. officials say as much as 25 tons of South American cocaine with an estimated street value of $500 million entered Mexico within a 48-hour period. U.S. authorities said the drugs came on two French-built Caravelle passenger jets, modified to carry cargoes of as much as 20 tons of cocaine per trip.
At least one of those jets landed near the southern tip of Baja California, the traditional smuggling route of the Tijuana cartel. But law enforcement officials said it was Carrillo and his Juarez cartel that pioneered the use of large cargo jets and a network of clandestine airstrips throughout northern Mexico. And now U.S. investigators say the Nov. 4 shipments, both of which eluded the defenses of Mexico's intensified war on narcotics smuggling, appeared to be the first concrete sign of Carrillo's joint-operating agreements.
Carrillo is known by the nickname "Lord of the Skies." In 14 years, say U.S. drug enforcement agents and Mexican prosecutors, this man born to peasants has risen to head a vast organization that has smuggled billions of dollars' worth of cocaine, heroin and marijuana into the United States. They say he uses an air cargo service that he owns under an alias, a business started in 1981 with a single Cessna that now includes Lear jets, Boeing 727s and French Caravelles.
From his base in the gritty town of Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, the stocky young entrepreneur has even won the grudging admiration of the agents who hunt him. They describe him as meticulous, cautious and elusive.
Carrillo's style, the investigators say, has kept him a free man in addition to making him rich. He never carries guns or drugs. He has not spoken publicly about any of the allegations against him, and he has never served more than eight months in jail. He has never been convicted of a crime.