Key Lieutenant’s Testimony Could Bring Tijuana Drug Lord to Justice

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The guilty plea of a major Tijuana Cartel operative is an important achievement for U.S. law enforcement, but the real victory could lie in the information he provides against his former boss, Benjamin Arellano Felix.

According to an FBI press release, Rigoberto Yanez Guerrero, alias “El Primo,” pleaded guilty Thursday to drug trafficking charges and membership in Mexico’s Arellano Felix Organization, also known as the Tijuana Cartel, from 1995 to 2001. During that time he served as a “go-between” for the illicit network and Colombian cocaine suppliers. According to the press release, he supervised the maritime shipment of 5-10 tons of cocaine into the United States from Colombia, and was in charge of transmitting money to his suppliers in that country. Yanez was arrested in Mexico in March 2001, and extradited to the US in December 2010, according to U.S. Treasury documents.

Yanez Guerrero is one in a long list of Arellano Felix Organization leaders to face jail time in the United States. Among them are Jesus Labra Aviles, alias “El Chuy;” Eduardo Arellano Felix, alias “El Doctor;” and Francisco Arellano Felix, alias “El Tigrillo.” Most prominent is Benjamin Arellano Felix, the cartel’s former strategic head, who currently awaits trial in the U.S. following the disqualification of his defense counsel on the grounds that he had represented a potential witness in the trial, according to media reports.

Arellano Felix was arrested in 2002 in Puebla, south Mexico (see photo). Some observers have said that his extradition in 2007 was a way for Mexico to demonstrate its good intentions to the U.S. in the run up to the Merida Initiative military aid package. Unlike some jailed drug bosses, it appears that Benjamin Arellano Felix’s control over the organization waned while he was in prison, with others taking over strategic control of the Tijuana Cartel in his absence. The current head of the group is Benjamin’s nephew Fernando Sanchez Arellano, also known as “El Ingeniero.” He appears to be running a much lower-profile organization, which is more disposed to make alliances with rival cartels than to fight it out.

The timing of Yanez’s plea is interesting. It comes in the run-up to the trial of Benjamin Arellano Felix, a deeply complex case which could last for several years, and will likely involve the multi-agency taskforces that hunted him.

While Yanez’s guilty plea is a victory for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, its true importance may come in providing greater ammunition in the case against the real prize: Arellano Felix. Yanez is likely in a position to provide important evidence against his former boss. According to a 2003 indictment against the Arellano Felix Organization, Yanez was the primary representative of the Tijuana Cartel in Mexico City. He was in charge of drug shipments to Mexico that occurred outside Baja California, and served as the primary point of contact for Colombian cocaine suppliers wishing to do business with Ismael Higuera Guerrero, alias “El Mayel.” These activities put Yanez in a key operational role for the Tijuana Cartel, which will likely allow him to provide detailed information about the activities and personal involvement of Arellano Felix in the group’s activities.

It is likely that Arellano Felix will make a plea bargain in order to avoid trial, and the recent plea of Yanez could send an important message to the capo; that the U.S. attorney’s office has another critical former associate to testify against him, making it more likely that he will finally be brought to justice. If that happens, Arellano Felix would join a very small group of true kingpins — he was the head of the organization, and not just a top lieutenant — extradited to the United States, convicted of their crimes, and serving time in prisons they cannot control through corruption.

While the conviction of Arellano Felix is unlikely to have an immediate effect on the operations of the Tijuana Cartel, it will send a message to other cartel heads in Mexico that extradition to the United States and conviction is a likely end to their criminal activities. This could make others more likely to turn themselves in in exchange for concessions, as many speculated that Edgar Valdez Villarreal, alias “El Barbie,” did, following his arrest last year. Valdez was famously pictured grinning after his capture, leading to rumours that he had given himself up to the authorities in order to avoid being targeted by fellow drug traffickers.

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