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Mexico Arrests Cartel Figure

U.S. intelligence aids the capture of an Arellano Felix drug-trafficking suspect based in Baja.

August 24, 2004|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — One of Mexico's most wanted drug-trafficking suspects was captured without a shot fired over the weekend, authorities said Monday, the latest in a series of high-profile arrests by Mexican law enforcement using intelligence supplied by U.S. anti-narcotics agents.

The arrest of Gilberto Higuera Guerrero at a safe house in Mexicali in Baja California on Sunday morning is a major victory in President Vicente Fox's campaign against major drug cartels. Leaders in each of the four largest groups have been arrested in recent months, although officials say the flow of drugs through Mexico into the United States probably has not waned.

It is also the latest example of the growing cooperation between U.S. and Mexican law enforcement, which have worked in tandem to pull off several recent captures. American officials say they are increasingly impressed with the willingness of Mexican anti-drug forces to act on U.S. surveillance information, an inclination not always evident in the past.

Higuera was among 12 alleged members of the Arellano Felix smuggling gang, also known as the Tijuana cartel, who were indicted on trafficking charges in federal court in San Diego in July 2003. The U.S. had offered a $2-million reward for his capture. The gang's two alleged leaders, Eduardo and Javier Arellano Felix, are still at large.

The Tijuana cartel once controlled a major portion of the cocaine and heroin entering the United States and is thought to be responsible for dozens of killings, including those of two Tijuana police chiefs, several state and federal prosecutors and a host of police officers since taking over the Baja California smuggling corridor in the 1980s.

That control has weakened in recent years as rival gangs encroached on the group's territory, triggering a bloody struggle. The decline has gathered force since Benjamin Arellano Felix, the cartel's alleged capo, was captured in March 2002.

The gang is being investigated for possible involvement in the June slaying of Francisco J. Ortiz Franco, an editor of Tijuana's crusading Zeta weekly newspaper who wrote articles describing the cartel's inner workings.

At a news conference Monday, Mexican Atty. Gen. Rafael Macedo de la Concha said Higuera oversaw the shipment of half the cocaine and heroin entering the United States over its southern border, a figure that a U.S. official could not confirm.

The arrest comes as the major cartels are reorganizing and forming new alliances in the face of increased government pressure, Mexican officials say.

Until last year, Mexican authorities allege, Higuera was the Arellano Felix organization's top operations man in the Mexicali area and oversaw the transshipment of huge volumes of drugs via tunnels, vehicles and "mules" -- people who convey the contraband, which is often contained inside their stomachs.

On Monday, the attorney general said Higuera changed his allegiance last year, defecting to the Sinaloa-based cartel believed to be controlled by Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, an alleged trafficker who has tried to usurp control of the Baja California drug-smuggling "platform."

A U.S. government source who asked not to be named said only that it was "possible" that Higuera had crossed over to the rival gang, adding that it was unclear how much drug business the suspect might have overseen.

Macedo acknowledged American help in finding Higuera and said the U.S. had requested the suspect's extradition. But he said Higuera must face Mexican charges first.

Whichever cartel he belongs to, Higuera is viewed by Mexican and U.S. law enforcement as one of Baja's top traffickers, after the two fugitive Arellano Felix brothers and Gustavo Rivera Martinez. The June arrests of Efrain Perez and Jorge Aureliano Felix, believed to be top Tijuana cartel functionaries, were also lauded by U.S. officials as major victories against drugs.

"This arrest is very important, especially on the heels of Efrain Perez and Jorge Aureliano Felix. That's three people on our most-wanted poster with $2-million rewards on each of them," said Jack Hook, assistant special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's San Diego office. "That should tell people that Mexican law enforcement is working very hard."

Higuera's brother Ismael and his brother's son, also named Ismael, who are alleged to be former top Arellano Felix operatives, have also been arrested on drug-trafficking charges.

Officials say that if the cocaine supply is declining, prices might be holding steady because of lower demand caused by the widening influx of methamphetamine, which has become the drug of choice for many U.S. addicts.

During a recent visit to Mexico, U.S. drug czar John Walters said the arrests of leaders from the Arellano Felix and other cartels over the last two years had caused "sporadic" disruption in supply but conceded that "we have not seen a systematic disruption or shortage."

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