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U.S. Officials Hail Sentencing Of Tijuana Cartel Leader, But Drug War Far From Over

Aired 4/3/12 on KPBS News.

Benjamin Arellano-Felix, the former leader of a major Mexican drug trafficking organization, was sentenced in San Diego on Monday to 25 years in prison. Some observers are surprised by the light sentence and question whether such prosecutions have done much to stem the bloodshed in Mexico, and the flow of drugs to the U.S.

— A U.S. federal judge on Monday sentenced Benjamín Arellano-Felix, the former leader of the Tijuana drug trafficking cartel, to 25 years in prison. Arellano-Felix was also ordered to forfeit $100 million in profits.

Benjamín Arellano-Felix ran the Tijuana cartel, or Arellano-Felix Organization, from the mid-1980s until his arrest in Mexico in 2002. The Arellano-Felix family controlled the flow of drugs across Mexico’s northwest border into California, considered perhaps the country's most lucrative drug trafficking territory, or plaza. The drug leader is thought to have ordered scores of murders in Baja California and elsewhere in Mexico.

He pleaded guilty and was sentenced on two charges: racketeering and conspiracy to launder money.

He’ll serve far less time in jail than many lower-ranking members of the cartel, including his brother, Francisco Javier Arellano-Felix, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2007 by the same judge who sentenced Benjamín Arellano-Felix on Monday.

However, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California, Laura Duffy, defended the sentence, saying it was "the equivalent of a life sentence" for the 58-year old cartel leader. After the 25 years Arellano-Felix will serve in a U.S. federal prison, he's expected to serve an additional 17 years in Mexico on drug-trafficking charges there.

Benjamin Arrellano Felix is shown in this undated photo supplied by Mexican a...
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Above: Benjamin Arrellano Felix is shown in this undated photo supplied by Mexican authorities March 9, 2002 in Mexico City.

Besides its proximity to San Diego, the Tijuana cartel has been of particular interest to Southern California law enforcement officials because the group has recruited young men from San Diego’s Barrio Logan neighborhood to serve as hit men. One of its recruits, David Barron Corona, was killed by a stray bullet while attempting to assassinate a prominent Tijuana journalist in 1997.

U.S. and Mexican law enforcement began to crack down on the cartel a decade ago, targeting its leaders.

“The idea is that that’s going to put the organization in disarray,” said Nathan Jones, who wrote his doctoral thesis on the Arellano-Felix cartel at the University of California-Irvine. He says this so-called "Kingpin Strategy" worked — sort of.

In 2008, a civil war broke out within the organization. Rival factions began battling for control over the "Tijuana plaza". This sparked the wave of gruesome murders and public displays of drug war brutality that still mar the city’s reputation.

David Shirk, from the Trans-Border Institute, said that, despite the fact that many of Mexico's original drug lords are now behind bars or dead, he doesn't see much progress in the battle against the illegal drug trade.

“I’m not sure we’ve learned very much in the prosecution of the drug war about the problem we’re trying to control "which is the use of drugs by our own citizens," Shirk said. "And exporting that problem to Colombia or Mexico or Guatemala, if that’s the next front, doesn’t seem to me to be a good use of blood or treasure.”

On a recent weekday afternoon, foot traffic was light on Tijuana's main tourist drag, Avenida Revolución. Souvenir vendors sat in folding chairs on the sidewalk outside their stores, chatting with neighbors. Only a handful of foreigners seemed to be shopping.

The city’s crime rate has dropped in recent years. But local journalists and U.S analysts say this is likely due to a pact between the still-active Tijuana cartel and the powerful Sinaloa cartel, which has moved in to fill the vacuum, not because the former’s original leaders have been taken out.

Still, tourism has barely returned to the city.

Mario Gonzalez, who sells ponchos and Mexican curios out of his store on Avenida Revolución, said maybe 20 percent of his business has come back. That’s equivalent to a small group of the hoards of tourists that used to roam the street a few decades ago.

Victor Clark-Alfaro, who heads the Binational Center for Human Rights in Tijuana, said he fears that his city’s relative peace could be broken at any moment, if whatever deal exists between the rival cartels falls apart. He likens it to a volcano.

“A volcano can be dormant for many years," Clark-Alfaro said, "or it can erupt at any moment.”

At a press conference following the hearing on Monday, U.S. Attorney Duffy said she didn't think the Arellano-Felix organization, or AFO, could regain power. But she acknowledged the drug war was far from over.

"May there be some other major cartels who are in play in Mexico and who are able to come in and take over the Tijuana and Mexicali plazas with the power the AFO once reigned over those areas? Possibly," she said.

With the support of the US government, Mexican President Felipe Calderón launched a war against the drug cartels five years ago that has led to unprecedented levels of violence. Duffy defended the strategy.

"Without question in this kind of a business, if you want peace, you have to prepare for war," she said. "And I think that that's exactly what President Calderón did and that's exactly what the United States law enforcement representatives along the southwest border have done."

While drug-related violence has shifted away from the U.S.-Mexico border region, last year was still one of the bloodiest in the country's recent history.

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | April 3, 2012 at 8:56 a.m. ― 4 years, 11 months ago

The drug war is far from over?

The drug war will never be over. Too many people are making money off of the drug war.

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Avatar for user 'HarryStreet'

HarryStreet | April 3, 2012 at 9:27 a.m. ― 4 years, 11 months ago

So what?

This monster was simply replaced with another of the same mold. What victory does anyone have? The murders keep happening, the drugs keep coming. Doesn't seem like we have any bragging rights here.

And's what's with the 25 year sentence? He'll be out with plenty years left to pick up the mantle and do the same all over again.

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Avatar for user 'malcolmkyle'

malcolmkyle | April 3, 2012 at 9:51 a.m. ― 4 years, 11 months ago

Excerpts from the Australian Drug Policy report titled: "The prohibition of illicit drugs is killing and criminalising our children and we are all letting it happen."

“For us, when we lost our son, we did not seek sympathy, we saw the injustice and craziness of our drug laws. We wanted people to focus on that, not on our suffering.” – Marion and Brian McConnell are founding members of 'Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform'.

“Many people who think of themselves as the beneficiaries of prohibition are really net losers. Parents are much more at risk of losing their children under prohibition than they would be if there was some kind of system where we had some measure of control over illicit drugs.” – Hon Professor Peter Baume AC, Former Chancellor of the ANU and Minister for Health in the Fraser Government

“I think the idea that prohibition kills is an important one. So my plea is how can we get governments to buy into this issue? I think they need to see that what they are doing and not doing, is causing a lot of the harms. At some stage they have to be held accountable for allowing this to happen.” – Hon Professor Geoff Gallop AC, Former Premier of Western Australia

“What we want governments to do is feel quite uncomfortable about the predicament they have put us in. They are running a system that is causing a whole lot of harm." - Hon Michael Moore, CEO Public Health Association of Australia and former Minister of Health for the ACT

“I am strongly in favour of legalising, regulating, controlling and taxing all drugs." - Nicholas Cowdery AM QC Director of Public Prosecutions for NSW from 1994 to 2011

“The key message is that we have 40 years of experience of a law and order approach to drugs and it has failed.” - Hon Dr Michael Wooldridge, Former Health Minister in the Howard Federal Government

"The current policy of prohibition discredits the law, which cannot possibly stop a growing trade that positively thrives on its illegality and black market status. Like the failure of the prohibition of alcohol in the USA from 1920 to 1933, the current prohibition of illegal drugs is creating more harms than benefits and needs to be reconsidered by the Australian community."

"The move against prohibition is gathering momentum in other countries across the ideological spectrum as communities around the world place responsibility for the costs of prohibition where it belongs: with those legislators who continue, by default, to support the international prohibition approach."

"Beneficiaries of the current approach include the law enforcement industry, those who benefit from the occupancy of prisons and a thriving insurance industry that insures residents for the high rates of household crime. The converse of this is that law-abiding citizens are the biggest losers."

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Avatar for user 'DeLaRick'

DeLaRick | April 3, 2012 at 10:57 a.m. ― 4 years, 11 months ago


You're right about the 25-year sentence. If that's a joke, I'm not amused. That despicable human being destroyed an untold number of lives. I'm hoping that the other goons in the "organization" recognize the sentence as proof that their fearless leader turned over a lot of state's evidence.

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Avatar for user 'Ratcheter'

Ratcheter | April 5, 2012 at 2:14 a.m. ― 4 years, 11 months ago

There must be something wrong with your data?

2011 statistics aren't officially consolidated as yet, but murders in Tijuana were higher in 2009 than in 2008 and higher again in 2010 than in 2009 - they've continually increased from the year you said it peaked.

Are you sure you don't mean the tourist area of Tijuana is safer? There is (of course) a huge difference between just the center and the entire Tijuana area.

I'm not attacking you dear lady but I'm genuinely bemused at the security gains that have apparently taken place (maybe they have in 2011?).

Have you heard of INEGI? Look up their mortality database which goes up to the end of 2010, they have TJ getting worse every year since 2007.

Wishing you all the best.

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