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Deadly Messages to Mexico

Some officials say the Arellano Felix drug gang has killed 1,000 people to assert its control. The stories of two victims reveal its ruthlessness.


TIJUANA — Their killings were surgical, their brutality unspeakable, and their death toll on California's doorstep runs well into the hundreds. Many of their victims were symbolic, chosen for the message their slayings would send, and by all official accounts, the killing was fun.

One victim was Jose "Pepe" Patino Moreno, a notably honest man who worked amid the corruption of Mexico's counternarcotics squads. The fearless, soft-spoken prosecutor who had won rare trust from U.S. law enforcement was found in a steep ravine on the road to Tecate. His head had been crushed by an industrial press; his 47-year-old body was so broken it felt like a bag of ice cubes when they lifted it.

The message: No one is beyond the reach of the Arellano Felix gang.

Alejandro Hodoyan has never been found. His mother watched helplessly as her eldest son was kidnapped at gunpoint in broad daylight in downtown Tijuana five years ago. She had been driving him to San Diego, where Hodoyan was to enter the U.S. federal witness-protection program.

The message: Don't snitch on the Arellano Felix brothers.

Known as the Arellano Felix Organization, Mexico's most powerful drug gang has for more than a decade used violence and money to maintain control of the lucrative Baja peninsula drug-smuggling corridor, through which a fourth of the cocaine consumed in the United States is funneled. A federal grand jury indictment filed in November 1999 called the gang a violent criminal enterprise run by two racketeering brothers.

Other documents and sources uncovered by The Times in recent weeks provide a rare inside look at the cartel's brutality, its effectiveness and the ruthlessness of its leaders.

That portrait comes amid new hope that recent setbacks suffered by the gang may mean its era of terror is nearing an end.

Ramon Arellano Felix, the enforcer who was on the FBI's 10 most wanted list, is dead, killed in a February shootout with police in Mazatlan. Brother Benjamin, the "chairman of the board," was arrested in Puebla weeks later.

Yet the image the Arellano Felixes carved out for themselves remains so fearsome that, even now, few people seem willing to speak out against them.

U.S. officials, who are preparing a case to extradite Benjamin, insist they have secret witnesses.

"We have spent millions of dollars to protect witnesses against the Arellano Felix Organization," said Errol J. Chavez, head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's San Diego office since 1997. "And they're hidden throughout the United States. They're not all dead or afraid to talk."

As yet, though, none have done so publicly, despite dozens of arrests and prosecutions of the cartel's drug mules, midlevel assassins and top lieutenants.

But the stories of the victims--pieced together from law enforcement sources, official records north and south of the border and the remembrances of family and friends--testify not only to the cartel's inner workings but also to its corrosion of Mexican life.

"It's difficult to see any limit to the evil," said Patino's sister, Maria Guadalupe Patino Moreno.

The official list of victims is so lengthy that the members of a multi-agency U.S. task force set up to target the organization in the mid-1990s finally gave up on a color-coded "Dead Chart" they had designed. They had documented about 300 victims when they stopped counting a few years ago. Some U.S. agents now put the toll as high as 1,000.

Among the dead are nearly two dozen Mexican law enforcement officials, many of them corrupted by an estimated $1 million a week in bribes the cartel spread around under a policy of plata o plomo--"silver or lead"--according to former DEA chief Thomas A. Constantine.

A handful were honest police officers or prosecutors, men such as Patino and Baja California state prosecutor Hodin Gutierrez Rico, who was shot more than 120 times in front of his family and then run over repeatedly by a van.

There were rival, upstart drug traffickers who failed to pay the Arellano Felixes for transit rights through the Baja corridor. Authorities say the cartel punished one such group in Ensenada in September 1998 by lining up 18 men, women and children and executing them one by one.

Other victims were from the gang's own ranks--suspected embezzlers or potential informants, cartel lawyers who knew too much, even family.

"It's not just to kill someone. It's terrorism," said William Gore, who heads the FBI's San Diego office. "It's to intimidate an entire population.... And that's how they stayed in power so long."

Added Don Thornhill, a DEA veteran of the war on the Arellano Felixes based in San Diego: "If you know your kids are going to get killed, your mother, your wife, that helps keep people in line."

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