MEXICO CITY — If there is one man likely to fill the power vacuum that the crippling of the Arellano Felix cartel has created in the multibillion-dollar drug-trafficking trade, it is Ismael Zambada.
A growing force in drug smuggling in northwestern Mexico, Zambada is the man Ramon Arellano Felix was thought to be gunning for when he himself was shot by police Feb. 10 in Mazatlan. The two were said to be sworn enemies, with Arellano Felix claiming Zambada had dodged a $20-million debt.
Zambada, from Sinaloa state, has been trying to break the Arellano Felix gang's iron grip on the Baja California "plaza," or turf, for years. Mexican authorities believe he was responsible for the February 2000 killing of Tijuana's police chief, Alfredo de la Torre.
"If you just look at geography, Zambada is in a position to benefit most from a weakened Arellano Felix organization," said Don Robinson, an FBI agent in San Diego. Zambada's operation is based in Culiacan and Mazatlan in Sinaloa state, across the Gulf of California from Baja.
The 53-year-old drug kingpin, nicknamed "El Mayo," was long considered a second-tier enforcer in the so-called Juarez cartel run by Amado Carrillo Fuentes. But since Carrillo Fuentes' death while undergoing plastic surgery in 1997, that cartel has splintered and Zambada's power has grown, U.S. law enforcement sources say.
The March 9 arrest of Benjamin Arellano Felix and the death of his brother Ramon leaves their Tijuana cartel--once considered "untouchable"--vulnerable to a challenge. Law enforcement officials on both sides of the border expect a bloody struggle for power to erupt in coming weeks.
Zambada is not the only pretender to the Arellano Felix domain. Osiel Cardenas, head of the Gulf cartel based in Tamaulipas state, is thought by U.S. drug investigators to be poised for a run at the Tijuana cartel's turf, through which a quarter of all the cocaine consumed in the United States is shipped. The Baja California-San Diego County smuggling franchise is highly coveted by drug runners because of its dense population of potential consumers on both sides of the border and the high volume of cross-border traffic into which smugglers can blend.
A key part of the franchise is the Arellano Felix wholesaling operation in Los Angeles, where drugs are stockpiled at safe houses for distribution around the United States, officials say.
Other drug gangs have wanted a piece of the Tijuana cartel's turf for years. But the Arellano Felix brothers insisted on high transshipment fees for the right to use their turf, and they wiped out anyone who tried to encroach on it without paying.
Zambada's relationship with the Arellano Felixes was once cordial, U.S. sources say. In fact, Zambada is known for his ability to forge alliances among competing cartels. But the Arellano Felixes had no interest in cooperating or sharing.
"Zambada knows how to win friends and influence people. Keep in mind he has 30 years in the business, and a lot of that has to do with his ability to communicate and broker deals that are beneficial to both sides," said one law enforcement official, who asked that his name not be used.
Zambada is thought to be on friendly terms with both Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, Amado's brother, and Juan Jose Esparragoza, two figures vying for control of the Juarez gang. But Zambada can be ruthless.
Investigators probing the shooting of the Tijuana police chief said suspects in the case have told them that Zambada ordered the killing and had put out other hits designed to wreak havoc in the Arellano Felix organization.
Zambada has been wanted by Mexico's attorney general's office since 1998, when it put bounties totaling $2.8 million on him and five other leaders in the Juarez cartel.
Evidence against Zambada came from disgraced army general Jose de Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, who was charged in 1997 with taking bribes from the Juarez cartel in exchange for protection. The general was then Mexico's anti-drug czar.
"Zambada learned early on how to hitch his wagon to other bigger organizations, and this has given him entree," said the U.S. law enforcement official, who added that Zambada has cooperated with another Sinaloa drug cartel operated by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and Hector Luis "El Guero" Palma.
But the Arellano Felix gang always insisted on monopoly control of its turf, which stretches from Tijuana to the Baja California border with Sonora state.
Walter W. Collette, special agent in charge of U.S. customs in San Diego, thinks that the Arellano Felix cartel is entrenched and that talk of its demise is premature.
"This will be a minor hiccup in their operations, a little blip, and then it's back to normal," said Collette, noting that 3,900 couriers were arrested in 2001 attempting to smuggle drugs into the United States.
But the FBI's Robinson said law enforcement officials on both sides of the border are waiting for the turf wars to begin. "Who will challenge for this territory? Zambada is certainly on everyone's short list of contenders," he said.
Rafael Aguirre in The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.