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U.S. Indicts an Alleged Mexican Cartel Kingpin

Drugs: Officials hope to 'break the bubble' protecting Arellano brothers. Reward of $2 million may be offered.

September 23, 1997|ANNE-MARIE O'CONNOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In an effort to increase pressure on the brutal Tijuana drug cartel, U.S. law enforcement officials have prepared an indictment against one of its alleged kingpins and are considering offering a hefty reward for his arrest, U.S. law enforcement officers said Monday.

A senior U.S. law enforcement officer in Washington said a grand jury returned an indictment on drug conspiracy charges against Ramon Arellano Felix, 33, one of three brothers alleged to run a sophisticated and ruthless cross-border drug trafficking organization. Officials said the indictment was still sealed.

U.S. authorities are also considering offering a reward as high as $2 million for his capture and placing him high on the FBI's Most Wanted list, law enforcement officers said.

The officials, who declined to be named before the official announcement, said they hope to use the indictment to turn up the heat on the Arellano brothers and "break the bubble" of protection that has prevented their capture in Baja California. They hope that people will be reluctant to associate with the brothers and be more inclined to offer information leading to their capture.

Traffickers' secret links to well-placed members of Baja society are a notorious open secret that U.S. officials term the "Palermo syndrome," after the Italian city made famous by the Mafia. Although the brothers are feared and repudiated by many, others respect them and a few even romanticize them, much like the American mobsters that inspired "The Godfather."

"The point is to highlight this cartel's criminality and to make this man socially unacceptable in the society in which he has operated," said a senior U.S. law enforcement officer. "No one should be caught dead with him after this."

"It rips away the shroud of deniability that they've worn in conducting their daily lives in Mexico," he said.

An official announcement of the indictment has been held up by witness protection issues, officials said. A few U.S. informants or relatives have been wounded or killed on both sides of the border during a key San Diego case against two alleged Arellano Felix gunmen.

Officials have even considered further delaying release of the indictment. According to one law enforcement officer, "It's got to be handled delicately."

Officials at the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI and the Justice Department had no official comment.

Using U.S. indictments to press for the arrest of Latin American drug traffickers--and to sidestep often corrupt judicial systems in their home countries--is a tactic that has been employed before.

Such was the case with Mexican trafficker Juan Garcia Abrego. He was convicted of drug charges in Houston after being arrested by Mexican antidrug agents and expelled from Mexico. He was sentenced in January to 11 life sentences and fined $128 million. Garcia Abrego was also the subject of a $2-million reward.

"If they were arrested in Mexico, is there a jail that could hold them or a judge who would try them?" said Tom Cash, a former Miami DEA chief, who was involved in the U.S. indictment that led to the 1987 extradition of Colombian drug lord Carlos Lehder.

"At the end of the day, if these people are going to be tried, it's got to be in the United States," Cash said.

Before Colombia banned extradition of its citizens, being brought to justice in the United States was the worst fear of the so-called extraditables--Medellin cartel drug lords who had bribed or intimidated their country's justice system.

"This is to raise the specter of extradition, which is their principal fear," a senior U.S. law enforcement officer said of the Arellano indictment. "You've got to raise the ante on these people."

The indictment alone does not mean that the capture of Ramon Arellano is imminent, however, and no one believes it will be easy.

The last known attempt to arrest one of the Arellanos erupted in a bloody public shootout in Tijuana in March 1994 in which a cordon of corrupt police officers killed federal agents who had handcuffed Javier Arellano. The police then spirited him to safety.

The Arellano brothers--Ramon, Javier and Benjamin--are wanted in Mexico. Ramon is wanted for involvement in the 1993 assassination of Guadalajara Archbishop Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo. Their organization is suspected of involvement in some of the 10 gangland-style slayings of senior Baja law enforcement officers since 1994.

Ramon and Benjamin have also been named in U.S. cases before. The U.S. marshals in San Diego issued an extradition warrant for Ramon for weapons violations in August 1993, according to a DEA publication. A 1989 grand jury indictment named Benjamin as a co-conspirator on drug conspiracy charges.

But the brothers at times have been shielded from arrest in Mexico by a corrupt shadow government that has reportedly included a succession of police chiefs and prosecutors.

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