A string of arrests and extraditions of important members of the Tijuana Cartel over the last month show the group is debilitated but resilient, able to maintain control of its home turf in Mexico and regenerate faster than the authorities can cut it back.
The latest prosecutions are the remnants of the Luz Verde indictment (download pdf version), a wide-ranging accusation released by the US Department of Justice in July 2010, which includes tantalizing details of cartel operations, police infiltrations, and the long reach of what is also known as the Arellano Felix Organization (AFO).[See InSight Crime’s Tijuana Cartel profile]
One of the operatives named is Carlos Cosme, a former Baja California state police officer who admitted in a US courtroom on May 25 to having hired another officer to run a hit squad on behalf of the cartel. Another is Jesus Quiñones (pictured above), a high ranking judicial official who served as a double agent of sorts, providing information to the cartel even while he was the Baja California State Attorney General’s liaison with the United States. He pleaded guilty in May.
However, the prosecution has hit some snags. Lead defendant Armando Villareal Heredia, alias “El Gordo,” pleaded not guilty on May 24. He was based in Guadalajara and was in charge of important logistics for drug shipments, before being arrested in Hermosillo, Sonora, in July 2011.
Villareal was extradited to the United States on May 23, in a now surprisingly common practice for sovereignty-wary Mexico. His not guilty plea may be a sign that he thinks the US case is weak, or that he is hoping to negotiate less prison time in exchange for information.
The US Attorney’s Office has shown that it prefers to avoid long costly trials, as it did in the case of Benjamin Arellano Felix. Arellano, the one-time operational leader of the AFO, was sentenced earlier this year to only 25 years in prison despite heading an organization guilty of committing countless homicides and drug trafficking since the 1980s.
The Luz Verde indictment was based on sophisticated investigative work by the San Diego Cross-Border Task Force (CBVTF). Following an intense internecine conflict which many believed had put the AFO on the brink of dissolution by January 2010, the indictment named 43 members of the group. It painted a picture of a diverse organization which had elements ranging from the utterly inept to the highly sophisticated.
In one notable incident described in the 86-page document, wiretap phone call transcripts showed AFO cell members in the US complaining that “the hats” (police) must be protecting their intended murder victim because every time they attempted to kill him the police arrived. The criminal cell failed to find the US informant inside it.
The US and Mexican authorities continue their fight against the AFO. On May 25, Mexican state police arrested Pedro Aguilar Ulivarria, an AFO lieutenant who led cells responsible for human smuggling, drug trafficking and car theft. Authorities had sought Aguilar for 11 years. On June 2, Otoniel Sosa Cardenas, alias “El Oto,” was arrested with $90,000 in drug profits intended for Fernando Sanchez Arellano, alias “El Ingeniero,” the current head of the AFO.
Yet, despite an impressive onslaught from the US and Mexican governments over the last decade, the AFO has survived. As InSight Crime reported, the organization seems to have reached a pact with the Sinaloa Cartel to share the Tijuana “plaza,” or trafficking corridor. According to InSight Crime sources, this includes charging a toll, or “piso,” on the Sinaloa Cartel’s illegal drug shipments through AFO territory, an illustration of the continued power of the local group.
To be sure, today’s AFO is the inheritor of a highly established criminal infrastructure, illustrating just how difficult it is to uproot a long-established criminal group from its home turf. While US and Mexican enforcement efforts forced leadership to change hands, the new generation of the AFO has proven as resilient if not more so than the first, in part because of its ability to work with other illicit networks like the Sinaloa Cartel.
*Nathan Jones is a post-doctoral fellow at the Baker Institute of Public Policy focusing on drug policy.