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Tijuana casino raid nets suspect

August 23, 2008|Richard Marosi | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Masked federal agents stormed Tijuana's Agua Caliente racetrack early Friday and captured an alleged organized-crime figure in a daring operation that stunned gamblers at the historic casino.

Mexican Army Gen. Alfonso Duarte Mujica, Tijuana's top military commander, identified the suspect as Ruben Rios Estrada, nicknamed "El Pit," a reputed enforcer for the Arellano Felix cartel. He was dragged from a bingo table and flown to Mexico City to face possible racketeering charges, Mexican law enforcement sources said.

The arrest appears to be another blow to a cartel that once was among the major exporters of cocaine to the U.S.

Rios narrowly escaped arrest last week after his convoy outran dozens of police cars in a wild chase across Tijuana, according to media reports. Police were sharply criticized by the local media for allegedly allowing him to escape.

Friday's raid, which took place just after midnight, was carried out by more than 20 agents from Mexico's top organized-crime unit, known by its acronym, SIEDO, said a Mexican federal law enforcement official. The agency is a branch of the federal attorney general's office that investigates drug smuggling and has a reputation for honesty among U.S. law enforcement officials.

The unit is dispatched from Mexico City, often to arrest high-ranking organized-crime figures who allegedly are protected by local authorities. The Mexican military provided some support in the raid, said Duarte, the general.

Rios, who rarely traveled without a large security detail, was unarmed when he was arrested. His bodyguards apparently were intimidated by the show of force, said a Mexican state law enforcement official who was not authorized to speak to the news media.

Another alleged cartel figure, whose identity was not released, was also arrested, Duarte said.

The Agua Caliente racetrack is the showcase property of former Tijuana Mayor Jorge Hank Rhon, a gambling tycoon who owns off-track betting parlors across Mexico. Hank's company, El Grupo Caliente, complained that the raid caused panic among the 1,300 gamblers, though it said it supported authorities' efforts against organized crime.

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richard.marosi@latimes.com

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