The Tijuana Cartel, also known as the Arellano Felix Organization, is based in one of the most strategically important Mexico border cities for trafficking drugs into the United States. Due to infighting, arrests and the deaths of many top leaders, the organization is a shell of what it was in the 1990s and early 2000s, when it was considered one of Mexico’s most potent and violent criminal groups. Still the cartel continues to export narcotics and may be expanding its presence internationally.
The Tijuana Cartel traces its roots back to Sinaloa state. Its founding members were Sinaloans who worked closely with the legendary trafficker Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, alias “El Padrino,” who began moving marijuana and heroin into the United States in the 1960’s. El Padrino worked with a group of Sinaloans including Pedro Aviles Perez, Rafael Caro Quintero and Ernesto Fonseca.
Tijuana Cartel Factbox
Principal criminal groups
The group left Sinaloa and formed the Guadalajara Cartel in the late 1970’s amidst crop fumigations, mass arrests and a military offensive in their home state that left Aviles dead. He was replaced by another Sinaloan named Joaquin Guzman Loera, alias “El Chapo,” who would go on to form the infamous Sinaloa Cartel. Guadalajara Cartel’s other members were also grooming their own replacements. Fonseca’s nephews, Amado and Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, would later create the Juarez Cartel and the Arellano Felix brothers — Benjamin, Ramon, Francisco Rafael, Francisco Javier, Eduardo (their brothers Luis Fernando and Carlos reportedly did not participate) — would form the core of the future Tijuana Cartel.
After leaving Sinaloa, Guadalajara Cartel began working with Colombian traffickers, moving large quantities of cocaine. In the early 1980s, a veteran US Drug Enforcement Administration agent named Enrique Camarena began gathering evidence to prosecute the cartel members. Shortly after helping Mexican authorities destroy a large marijuana field, Camarena was killed by Guadalajara Cartel operatives. The United States began a massive manhunt and pressured Mexico to do the same. Caro Quintero was arrested in April 1985 in Costa Rica, but was released early from prison in Mexico on a technicality in August 2013. El Padrino remained at large for years but was arrested in April 1989.
From prison El Padrino divided up his territories. Guzman and his partner, Hector Luis Palma Salazar, got 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); and the Arellano Felix brothers would get Tijuana.
The brothers looked to expand almost immediately. Shortly after El Padrino’s imprisonment, 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 the assassination of Sinaloa Cartel faction leader Ismael Zambada Garcia, alias “El Mayo.” However El Mayo’s men were able to kill Ramon instead. A month later Mexican authorities arrested Benjamin Arellano Felix, leaving Eduardo Arellano Felix and his sister Enedina to lead the Tijuana Cartel. The cartel’s leadership continued to suffer arrests and extraditions. Shortly after completing a 10-year prison sentence in Mexico, Francisco Rafael was extradited to the US in 2006, but later released early on good behavior. Mexican authorities captured Francisco Javier in 2006, and Eduardo in 2008.
The Tijuana Cartel split after Eduardo’s arrest. The founding members’ nephew Fernando Sanchez Arellano, alias “El Ingeniero,” headed up one faction, while Eduardo Teodoro Garcia Simental, alias “El Teo” or “Tres Letras,” headed up another. 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 appeared to consolidate again under El Ingenierio.
In December 2012, the last of the arrested Arellano Felix brothers, Eduardo, was extradited to the United States, and was sentenced to 15 years in US prison in August 2013. The oldest brother, Francisco Rafael, was assassinated in October 2013, though he was no longer considered a major player. El Ingeniero was arrested by the Mexican authorities in June 2014, leaving his mother Enedina in charge.
After around 2010 Tijuana enjoyed a relative peace, attributed to a truce between the Tijuana and Sinaloa Cartels, with Sinaloa retaining primary control of Tijuana and the surrounding area. However a report in early 2015 indicated the Tijuana Cartel may be attempting to retake territory from Sinaloa. Other reports indicate the Tijuana Cartel may be expanding its presence abroad.
Enedina Arellano Felix, alias “La Narcomami” heads the Tijuana Cartel. Enedina is a sister of the cartel’s founding members. Prior to leading the Tijuana Cartel she reportedly handled much of the organization’s finical operations and money laundering.
The Tijuana Cartel primarily operates in its namesake city. Located on the US-Mexico border, Tijuana is a strategic location for smuggling drugs into Southern California.
Allies and Enemies
The organization is suspected of forming a truce with former rival the Sinaloa Cartel. However a new report indicates the two cartels may again be competing.
Although the Tijuana Cartel has fallen sharply from the height of its power in the 1990s to early 2000s, the organization continues to exist and is thought to be powerful enough to charge “piso” or tax for shipping drugs through areas it controls. The capture of Sinaloa head El Chapo and a possible international expansion may allow the Tijuana Cartel to regain some power.