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U.S. Charges Expected Against Mexican Drug Figure


SAN DIEGO — Heartened by the arrest in Mexico this week of the suspected manager of Tijuana's infamous drug cartel, U.S. officials are expected to roll out drug charges in coming days against another leader of the Arellano Felix cartel.

A federal official said Friday that the focus of the new U.S. charges is Benjamin Arellano, described by investigators as the cartel's primary commander. Benjamin Arellano has not previously been publicly charged by the U.S. government, although his brother, Ramon, was indicted in 1997 for drug conspiracy and remains on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list. The U.S. government has offered a $2-million reward for information leading to the arrest of Ramon Arellano, viewed as the gang's enforcer.

Authorities plan to announce a stepped-up search for Ramon Arellano on the theory that he might try to flee across the border into the United States to escape what appears to be a newly aggressive offensive against cartel leaders by the Mexican military.

"Now's the time when I wouldn't be surprised if Ramon is up here someplace--in L.A. or somewhere else," the official said. "We're going to closely watch the border."

U.S. authorities cheered the capture Wednesday of Ismael Higuera Guerrero, reputed to be the manager of daily drug trafficking for the cartel, which is seen by many as the most violent and powerful in Mexico. Higuera, who was rounded up along with his 15-year-old son and eight other people during a raid by Mexican soldiers and federal agents in Ensenada, faces murder and drug charges in Mexico. He is being held in a maximum-security prison outside Mexico City. The charges carry a possible sentence of 40 years.

"Finally [Mexican officials] feel like we can go to war with these guys and take them down," said Vince Rice, a spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in San Diego. "This is going to start dismantling the organization."

The Higuera arrest came two months after another reputed cartel boss, Jesus Labra Aviles, was snared by Mexican soldiers as he watched a youth football game at a Tijuana school. The back-to-back arrests have encouraged officials in the United States who have grumbled privately that Mexico seemed to be doing little to smash the cartel, which they say dominates smuggling of marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamines into the western United States.

It may be many years before Higuera is eligible to face newly unsealed accusations in the United States that he ran a criminal enterprise and conspired to smuggle and distribute cocaine and to launder money. The combined charges carry a possible maximum prison sentence of 80 years and a $10.5-million fine.

The year-old indictment was kept under wraps until Thursday, after Higuera's arrest. But under treaties between the two countries, Higuera must first be prosecuted in Mexico before U.S. authorities could have him extradited.

"At this point, we wouldn't be able to, under the extradition treaty. We wouldn't have priority," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Gonzalo Curiel, a federal drug prosecutor in San Diego.

Other officials said the capture of Higuera, believed to be responsible for paying off corrupt police to protect cartel figures, may aid U.S. investigators by flushing other gang leaders from hiding.

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