SAN DIEGO — In what could amount to the most serious blow ever against the Tijuana-based Arellano Felix drug gang, Mexican authorities on Thursday announced the arrest of a senior cartel figure who they say ran vast cross-border trafficking operations and directed the torture and murder of rivals that serve as the group's bloody hallmark.
Authorities in Mexico City said Ismael Higuera Guerrero was arrested Wednesday, along with his 15-year-old son and eight other people, after Mexican soldiers and federal police raided a home along a scenic highway near Ensenada, 65 miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border.
About 30 soldiers and federal police, acting on an anonymous telephone tip about an armed group firing weapons and creating a disturbance, initially encountered gunfire from the home's rooftop, said Mariano Herran Salvatti, Mexico's top drug prosecutor. After the officers entered the ground floor and unleashed tear gas, Higuera and the others surrendered without incident.
Herran called the arrest of Higuera, who was transferred overnight to Mexico City, a "very important blow." The prosecutor also predicted the eventual capture of the three fugitive Arellano Felix brothers who sit atop the crime syndicate, perhaps the most potent and vicious of Mexico's drug gangs.
"We are seeing the dismantling of the Arellano brothers' organization," Herran told reporters in Mexico City.
Higuera faces a homicide charge stemming from the 1994 death of a federal police commander at the hands of state police officers allegedly acting under orders from Higuera. He also is charged with drug trafficking.
The arrest prompted U.S. officials late Thursday to unseal an indictment in U.S. District Court in San Diego charging Higuera with operating a continuing criminal enterprise and conspiring to smuggle and distribute cocaine.
U.S. authorities hailed the arrest as a significant advance in Mexico's on-again, off-again campaign against the Arellano clan. The cartel, with tentacles reaching along Mexico's Pacific coast and as far south as the state of Chiapas, controls a crucial corridor for smuggling marijuana, cocaine and, increasingly, methamphetamines across the U.S. border. About 60% of cocaine entering the United States comes across the southern border, according to U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration estimates.
"The arrest of Ismael Higuera Guerrero on Mexican drug trafficking charges represents a major victory for both Mexican and U.S. law enforcement," said Donnie R. Marshall, acting administrator of the DEA, in a statement issued from agency headquarters in Washington.
U.S. authorities describe Higuera as akin to the managing executive of a sprawling corporate enterprise, overseeing daily operations as the key link to Colombian cocaine suppliers and marijuana growers in Mexico, arranging payoffs to corrupt political and law enforcement officials and wielding an iron fist against rival traffickers from outside and traitors inside the Arellano drug network.
"He may be the most important member of the organization. He's the hands-on person," said one U.S. law enforcement official. "You can have the chairman of the board of Xerox or IBM. But they're not the ones getting things done."
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she hoped that Mexican authorities "would be willing to extradite" Higuera.
Higuera rose in power as three Arellano brothers went underground after the slaying in 1993 of Roman Catholic Cardinal Jesus Posadas Ocampo in Guadalajara, U.S. officials say. The cardinal is thought to have been caught in the cross-fire during a botched attempt by Arellano hit men to kill a rival drug lord.
Higuera is suspected of ordering uthe 1994 assassination of reformist Tijuana Police Chief Federico Benitez. That killing followed a much-publicized shootout in downtown Tijuana between federal agents and state police who were allegedly protecting Higuera. The showdown claimed the lives of the federal commander and three other people.
Some U.S. officials believe Higuera ordered the killings last month of three Mexican drug agents who had been collaborating with U.S. authorities in a new, secret hunt for the leaders of the Arellano group. Ramon Arellano was named to the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list in 1997 and is the subject of a $2-million reward offer by the U.S. government.
Herran said no link has yet been established between Higuera and the deaths of federal prosecutors Jose Patino Moreno and Oscar Pompa Plaza and army Capt. Rafael Torres Bernal. Their bodies, bearing signs of torture, were found April 11 near their car in a ravine off the highway between Tijuana and Mexicali. U.S. officials said the group was closing in on the Arellano leaders.