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U.S. Aid Figured in Kingpin's Capture

Drugs: Surveillance helped Mexican police seize the head of the Tijuana cartel. A judge drops some charges.

April 06, 2002|CHRIS KRAUL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — The U.S. government Friday acknowledged playing an important role in last month's capture of Benjamin Arellano Felix, an arrest that authorities on both sides of the border have hailed as crucial to efforts to dismantle the notorious Tijuana cartel.

A high-ranking U.S. official who spoke on the condition he not be named said the March 9 arrest of the cartel's leader was facilitated by U.S. surveillance of cash couriers who move tens of thousands of dollars from Tijuana to the cartel's safe houses in Mexico City and Puebla.

Until now, U.S. officials had credited the Mexicans with Arellano Felix's capture, the biggest coup so far in President Vicente Fox's offensive on major drug lords. Officials in both governments are hailing a renewed spirit of cross-border cooperation and intelligence-sharing.

"The good news is that the Mexican government acted on the tip, that it didn't sit there for six months with no action being taken on it," as might have been the case in the past, the high-ranking official said.

A big break in the case came when U.S. surveillance helped track Arellano Felix's wife, Ruth, to a house in Puebla where her husband was believed to be holed up, the official said. That prompted Mexican army units to storm the house, arresting Arellano Felix in a 1 a.m. raid.

No shots were fired, although Ruth Arellano Felix pulled a gun and threatened authorities, the U.S. official said. She was not arrested. At least one of the couple's three children was in the house at the time.

While applauding progress in the campaign against drug cartels, both U.S. and Mexican officials expressed concern about a judge's dismissal Thursday of some of the charges filed against Arellano Felix, related to weapons possession and the 1993 killing of Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo.

In explaining the dismissals, Judge Leopoldo Ceron said that evidence linking Arellano Felix to the killing was insufficient and that the weapons charges arose from a police raid conducted without a proper search warrant.

Arellano Felix's brother Francisco was convicted of having participated in the cardinal's killing, in the western city of Guadalajara, and is serving a prison sentence, as are two hit men who worked for the family. The cardinal apparently was an accidental victim of an attack by the Tijuana cartel on a rival gang leader.

The dismissals raised fears Friday among U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officials that the Mexican judiciary is intimidated by the cartel's violent reputation and that Arellano Felix would somehow elude justice.

Two federal judges were slain in Mazatlan in November in what some Mexican officials think were vengeance killings ordered by the cartel.

One top Mexican prosecutor, who asked that his name not be used, derided Ceron's action in an interview Friday, saying federal prosecutors in the Arellano Felix case had "20 years of experience and know what they are doing."

Said the U.S. official: "I'm concerned any time that charges are dismissed, but I've been assured that the remaining three charges [against Arellano Felix] are very strong."

The United States has said it will seek to extradite Arellano Felix to face drug-trafficking charges. A $2-million reward was on his head at the time of his arrest. The drug chieftain is in the process of being "re-indicted" on U.S. charges that would not require a life sentence. The Mexican Supreme Court has ruled that Mexicans cannot be extradited to face life in prison or the death penalty.

The new spirit of U.S.-Mexico cooperation has come about because, though corruption remains rampant among Mexican law enforcement agencies, the U.S. has "found a handful of people who we can be confident about," the official said.

He credited the courageous "snake eaters" in the Mexican army for arresting cartel leaders who, through intimidation or bribes, have enjoyed impunity in the past.

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