Due to infighting, arrests and the deaths of some of its top members, the Tijuana Cartel is a shell of what it was in the 1990s and early 2000s, when it was considered one of the most potent and violent criminal organizations in Mexico. After the arrest or assassination of various members of the Arellano Felix clan, the cartel is now headed by Fernando Sanchez Arellano, a nephew of the Arellano Felix brothers who once bloodied Mexico and southern California with their brutish and authoritarian style. The cartel flirted with destruction when the powerful Sinaloa Cartel moved into Tijuana in force, however after apparently negotiating a truce, Sanchez Arellano and the Tijuana Cartel look set to continue playing a role in this lucrative drug and human trafficking corridor.
Like most of the drug trafficking organizations in Mexico, the Tijuana Cartel traces its origins to Sinaloa state. Its founding members were Sinaloans who worked closely with the legendary Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo. Felix Gallardo, alias "El Padrino," established his organization in Sinaloa moving marijuana and heroin into the United States in the 1960s with the core of what would become the Guadalajara Cartel. This group included Pedro Aviles Perez, Rafael Caro Quintero and Ernesto Fonseca.
Despite its name, the Guadalajara Cartel is from Sinaloa. Its members left their homeland during a military offensive in the region in the late 1970s that included mass arrests and a crop fumigation campaign. Amidst the offensive, police shot and killed Aviles, but a younger generation, including an upstart Sinaloan named Joaquin Guzman Loera, alias "El Chapo," quickly took his place. After working for years with Felix Gallardo, Guzman would form the Sinaloa Cartel. The other members of the group were grooming their own replacements: Fonseca’s nephews, Amado and Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, would later create the Juarez Cartel; the Arellano Felix brothers -- Benjamin, Ramon, Rafael, Javier, Eduardo (their brothers Luis Fernando and Carlos reportedly did not participate) -- would form the core of the future Tijuana Cartel. Meanwhile, the military campaign failed: marijuana and poppy production remained prominent in the area, as well as the neighboring states of Durango and Chihuahua. To be sure, the tri-state region, or so-called "Golden Triangle," has long represented the Sinaloans' power base in the drug trade.
After shifting operations to Guadalajara, the group began working closely with the Colombian traffickers who were starting to move cocaine in large quantities through the isthmus. Guadalajara's stature rose, as did law enforcement efforts to dismantle it. In the early 1980s, a veteran Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent named Enrique Camarena began gathering evidence to prosecute the cartel members. Shortly after Camarena had helped Mexican authorities destroy a large marijuana field, cartel operatives kidnapped and killed him. The United States began a massive manhunt and pressured Mexico to do the same. Caro Quintero was arrested in April 1985 in Costa Rica. Felix Gallardo remained at large for years but was arrested in April 1989.
From jail, Felix Gallardo called a meeting in Acapulco and divvied up the territories: Guzman and his partner, Hector Luis Palma Salazar, would get parts of Baja California and Sonora; Rafael Aguilar Guajardo would get from Juarez to Nuevo Laredo (the Carrillo Fuentes brothers would later take over this route); the Arellano Felix brothers would get Tijuana. However, almost from the beginning the Arellano Felix brothers were after more. In 1989, shortly after Felix Gallardo was jailed, Ramon Felix Arellano killed a close associate of Guzman in Sinaloa.
The fight quickly spread. In May 1993, the Arellano Felix brothers sent gunmen to intercept Guzman at the Guadalajara airport, striking and killing a Mexican cardinal instead. Francisco Rafael Arellano Felix was arrested by Mexican authorities in 1993, but after Guzman and Palma were arrested, the Arellano Felix clan grew to unprecedented heights. They made a pact with the Caro Quintero clan in Sonora, the Milenio Cartel (the Valencia brothers) in Michoacan, as well as alliances in Colima, Jalisco and Oaxaca that allowed them to dominate the trade from north to south.
After Guzman escaped prison in 2001, a new round of fighting began. In February 2002, Ramon Arellano Felix traveled to Mazatlan to oversee and partake in an attempt on the Sinaloa Cartel’s other force, Ismael Zambada Garcia, alias "El Mayo," who was eyeing one of the Tijuana Cartel’s prized "plazas," Mexicali. Zambada, however, took fright, and his men assassinated Ramon. A month later, Mexican authorities arrested Benjamin. The organization readjusted again, with Eduardo Arellano Felix and his sister Enedina taking lead roles. The group made an alliance with the Gulf Cartel’s Osiel Cardenas Guillen in jail and eyed their common enemy: Guzman.
But numerous arrests in the United States and the extradition of other members to the United States to face charges shifted the balance in favor of the increasingly active US law enforcement agents on both sides of the border. Mexican authorities captured Francisco Javier in 2006, and Eduardo in 2008. After Eduardo’s arrest, the group split. Fernando Sanchez Arellano, who is known as "El Ingeniero" and is the nephew of the founding members of the cartel, headed up one faction. Eduardo Teodoro García Simental, alias "El Teo" or "Tres Letras," headed up another faction. El Teo sought an alliance with the Sinaloa Cartel, while El Ingeniero reportedly allied himself with the Zetas. A bloody feud ensued, but following the arrest of El Teo in January 2010, the organization appears to have consolidated again around El Ingenierio.
Since 2009 a relative peace seems to have been in place in Tijuana, which has been attributed to a truce between the Tijuana and Sinaloa Cartels. It is likely that, despite the native group's weakened state, they still have enough power to charge the Sinaloa "piso" or tax, to transport drugs through their territory.
In December 2012, the last of the arrested Arellano Felix brothers, Eduardo was extradicted to the United States. However, since negotiating peace with the Sinaloa Cartel the resiliant remnants of the Tijuana Cartel look set to continue to operate.
An indictment in the San Diego District Court unsealed in July 2010 painted a picture of a sophisticated organization very much in business, with contacts in the Mexican police and government, including control over the liaison between the Baja California Attorney General's Office and the US government. According to reports, Sanchez Arellano’s mother, Enedina, runs the money side of the business. It also says the group's extortion and kidnapping rackets are flourishing under the watch of the new boss. The "Enterprise," as U.S. authorities called it in the indictment, has a multi-layered organization that insulates its leadership from legal prosecution. Evidence of this is in the indictment itself: while the US call it the Sanchez Arellano Organization, Fernando Sanchez Arellano is himself not indicted.
- William Finnegan, "In the Name of the Law," New Yorker, 18 October 2010.
- "Mexico’s Drug Cartels," Congressional Research Services, 28 February 2008. (pdf)
- Hector de Mauleon, "Tijuana: En la colina de El Pozolero," Nexos, 1 August 2009.
- Zeta Magazine Profile of Fernando Sanchez Arellano (translated and posted by Bordeland Beat October 11, 2010).
- "El dicipulo de los Arellano Felix," Proceso, 4 May 2011.