In Tijuana, a dusty, sprawling border city that separates Mexico from one of the world’s most lucrative drug markets, a question hangs in the air: Who controls this trafficking corridor?
The relative quiet of the “plaza” may provide only part of the answer, but it could give a clue as to what comes next for the rest of the country.
The AFO’s Iron Fist
For nearly two decades, Tijuana was under the thumb of the Arellano Felix clan. This volatile family -- which included five brothers, two sisters, and a secretive but entrepreneurial nephew -- ruled with an iron fist for those who defied them and a golden parachute for those who stayed the course.
The Arellano Felix Organization (AFO), or Tijuana Cartel, ran mostly marijuana and cocaine into California using everything from tunnels to large shipping containers to small-time mules who were willing to risk taking minor quantities in their cars in the hopes that even if they were caught, U.S. authorities would not prosecute them. The AFO also collected a surcharge, or “piso” as it's known in Mexico, for all business done in the region from Tijuana to Mexicali, including contraband, human trafficking, and local drug trafficking.
This large operation spawned an equally large military and intelligence-gathering infrastructure, which began to break down and break away after its top leadership was killed or arrested during a six-year period beginning in 2002.
The result was all-out war, as rival organizations sought to enter the plaza. On one side, Teodoro Garcia Simental, alias “El Teo” or “Tres Letras,” allied himself with rivals from the Sinaloa Cartel. On the other, Fernando Sanchez Arellano, alias “Fernandito” or “El Ingeniero,” made a pact with the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO) and tried to hold the turf his uncles had made synonymous with their name.
Soon, Tijuana had one of the highest homicide rates in Mexico. The chaos continued until Garcia Simental was arrested in January 2010, and since then Tijuana’s murder rate has seen a steady decline.
The relative calm in the city is the subject of endless speculation. Is it the result of a deal between Sinaloa Cartel and the AFO? Or was there a winner? And if so, who?
To answer this question, InSight traveled to Tijuana and spoke to numerous law enforcement officials in Mexico and the United States, as well as local crime analysts and reporters. What it found was conflicting.
On the surface, it appears that the Sinaloa Cartel now has the upper hand. Sinaloa operatives like Gustavo Inzunza, alias “Macho Prieto,” control Mexicali, which remains, according to one Mexican intelligence official, the most important route for cocaine moving north. Some of the AFO’s operatives have also defected and may be working directly with the Sinaloa Cartel or running their own operations.
In Tijuana, the signs also point to the Sinaloa Cartel’s dominance. Its operatives are beginning to take control of some of the more lucrative local illegal establishments, including the western corner of the city where brothels, gambling, and small time drug dealing are drawing increasingly local consumers.
What's left of the AFO empire may be little more than a puppet, allowed to remain so as not to upset the traditional balance of power in the region, one U.S. law enforcement agent told InSight.
The head of that puppet empire, Fernando Sanchez Arellano, has not been photographed since he was a teenager and, unlike his uncles, has a reputation for using cunning rather than force to get his way. He runs what's left of the AFO alongside his mother, Enedina, and the family’s longtime associate, Manuel Aguirre Galindo. The United States, in an indictment released in July 2010, rebaptized the cartel as the Fernando Sanchez Organization (FSO). But Aguirre Galindo and Enedina’s historical contacts with Colombia may be what is really keeping it afloat.
The U.S. indictment painted a picture of an “enterprise” very much in business, with operatives in Mexico and the United States transporting and distributing illegal narcotics, enforcing their control over territory to collect piso, and penetrating the state. The indictment, for instance, says the FSO coopted the liaison for the Baja California Attorney General’s Office, using him to target rivals and obtain information about operations against the organization.
The indictment forms part of the argument that obituaries of the AFO, or the FSO, are premature. Many investigators cited Sanchez Arellano’s experience as the head of the cartel’s intelligence operations, his political and business connections, and his proven ability to bend the government’s security forces to his whim. They said he still controls bits of the eastern part of the city and maintains a sizable infrastructure that is loyal to him. This includes Armando Villareal, alias “El Gordo,” and Ivan Candelario, alias “El Soldado,” both named in the recent U.S. indictment.
The FSO is still collecting piso from other organizations that use the corridor to move drugs north. Authorities cited the presence of the Familia Michoacana, which has a small cell that moves mostly methamphetamine through Tijuana to the United States. Authorities have said on various occasions that this cell pays piso to the FSO. The ability to collect these payments is a strong indication of the organization's operational might and ability to penetrate local authorities, who are frequently the first and last line of defense for an organization attempting to protect its turf.
Still, Sanchez Arellano has lost a lot of mid-level members to arrests and killings in the brutal infighting that nearly destroyed the group. One such operative was Juan Francisco Sillas Rocha, alias “El Ruedas.” Sillas was captured earlier this year in California while preparing to kidnap and presumably kill someone who owed money to the FSO. The loss of Sillas could be a blow to the group, and the fact that Sanchez Arellano sent him so far afield to collect a debt may also be a sign of what many investigators told InSight: Fernando is low on money.
Sinaloa operatives also appear to be gaining sway in Tijuana, investigators told InSight. This includes Alfredo Arteaga, alias “El Achiles,” a former AFO associate, and Inzunza. Arteaga is now the Sinaloa’s point man in Tijuana, while Inzunza runs the critical crossing point at Mexicali. Both are seasoned veterans who have slowly inched their way to more territory in Baja California, and one source told InSight that the FSO now controls no more than 15 percent of the city. The Sinaloa Cartel’s firepower, manpower, and high-level political connections appear to give them the upper hand and seem to be at the heart of the fragile peace in the area.
To be sure, most of the experts and investigators say this peace exists because Sinaloa wants it that way. They argue that Sinaloa is spread too thin to open a third war. The cartel is battling the Zetas and their former partners, the Beltran Leyva Organization, in various parts of the country, and continues to fight with the Juarez Cartel in that embattled city.
But even if Sanchez Arellano’s power has ebbed, he still has something his rivals do not: long-time family and business contacts in the city, as well as political capital. This is part of the family history and connection to a city its (dirty) money helped build. As one observer noted, what’s left of the AFO is precisely those individuals who historically ran the money side of the business and continue to do so, specifically Enedina and Aguirre Galindo. This could explain why Sinaloa operatives have left Sanchez Arellano as the figurehead. It might just be too costly politically and financially for them to make the final push.
This report is based on a two week trip to southern California and northern Mexico in February 2011. It included numerous interviews with Mexican and U.S. anti-drug officials, as well as talks with a former Arellano Felix Organization operative and numerous analysts and diplomats.