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Federal Agents Bust a Mexican Drug Lord


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

A notorious Mexican drug kingpin went fishing off the coast of Baja, California, and it was the U.S. Coast Guard and Federal drug agents that came up with the big catch. They nabbed 37-year-old Javier Arellano-Felix on a private fishing boat in international waters. Authorities say Arellano heads a violent Mexican gang that's responsible for digging drug tunnels under the U.S. border. Here's how DEA agent Mike Braun described him today.


Mr. MIKE BRAUN (Drug Enforcement Agency): This guy happens to be one of the 45 most notorious, most wanted drug traffickers in the world. So this is not your average arrest and Javier is not your average drug trafficker.

BLOCK: NPR's Carrie Kahn is following this story. And Carrie, tell us more about this man. Who is Javier Arellano-Felix?

CARRIE KAHN reporting:

He's one of seven brothers and four sisters in the Arellano-Felix family that run this crime organization. U.S. and Mexican authorities say that they're one of the top three drug trafficking cartels in Mexico. And until this arrest, Javier and his brother, Eduardo, have been sought by authorities. Eduardo is presumed to still be operating in Mexico.

One of the cartel's kingpin brothers was killed in a shootout in Acapulco a few years ago and another leader, Benjamin, is in Mexico's maximum security prison. So that just left the two brothers, and now we're down to one. Like you heard the DEA agent say, you know, they use every terrible adjective they can think of in describing Javier and the Arellano family - ruthless, notorious, most violent. They say that they've been responsible for smuggling tons, even hundreds of tons, of cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, marijuana, all drugs into the U.S. And they dominate that traffic through California.


BLOCK: And U.S. authorities had posted a five million dollar reward for Arellano's arrest.

KAHN: They had. Also in July of 2003, the U.S. Attorney in San Diego unsealed a multi-count indictment against the Arellanos and specifically Javier. In that indictment they accused him of all that smuggling and controlling the trafficking along the Pacific Coast. They say he collaborates with drug traffickers from Colombia and Peru. But they also accused him of as many as 20 murders on both sides of the border.

U.S. drug officials really believe that the cartel's power has been on the decline since that brother was murdered and the other one was arrested. But, while they've been on the decline, they've been struggling with rival gangs for control of the lucrative California corridor, and there has just been tremendous violence in Tijuana and spillover murders and kidnapping and violence in California, and that's why they've been so intent on getting him.

BLOCK: And he was arrested in that fishing boat with ten other people. What can you tell us about them?

KAHN: Right. There were 10 other people. There were three juveniles also on the boat. It was called the Doc Holiday, and they were out fishing fifteen miles off of La Paz when the U.S. Coast Guard got a tip and nabbed them.

Also with them were two suspected assassins of the cartel. And officials wouldn't confirm their names, but I've spoken with several sources in Tijuana and they say they were suspected hit men for the cartel. And one of the men that was arrested, Arturo Virelle Alberon(ph), he's been implicated in the murder of a prominent Tijuana journalist. He worked for a magazine in Tijuana and it's a magazine that's famous for its groundbreaking reports on drug traffickers. And I managed to speak with the founder of the magazine and he said he was cautiously optimistic about the arrests. He wants to hear more before he celebrates that they caught the man who killed his co-editor.

BLOCK: Now we mentioned that Arellano has been linked to elaborate drug tunnels that run under the U.S./Mexico border. You've been in one of those tunnels near San Diego. What's it like?

KAHN: They're pretty amazing. Since 9/11, authorities have found dozens of tunnels under the border. They run right under the border, many in the San Diego region that's controlled by the Arellano-Felix. The most elaborate was discovered just last January. It ran nearly a mile long under the border and it popped up in an industrial warehouse in San Diego. It had concrete floors. It had lighting, ventilation. It even had a pump to pump out the ground water that would build up and fill up the tunnel.

The one that I went to, it was a couple of years ago that they discovered it, and it just plunged fifty feet straight down and then took a turn right into the U.S. And it had also filled up with water, so we didn't go too far into it. But authorities say that, you know, since 9/11 and since this crackdown along the border, this has become the favorite route to bring drugs into the U.S. And they say that Javier and the Arellano cartel have constructed these incredibly elaborate ones, the ones that have been discovered most recently.

BLOCK: Now briefly, Carrie, how big a dent do U.S. authorities think they have put in drug traffic out of Mexico?

KAHN: They say they're not deluding themselves. Whenever there's a vacuum in a huge, lucrative cartel like this, somebody jumps up to fill it and they say they have no doubt that someone will step up and fill the gap soon.

BLOCK: NPR's Carrie Kahn. Thanks very much.

KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.