What We Can Learn from a Captured Tijuana Capo’s Testimony

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A newly leaked declaration from a former leader of the Tijuana Cartel offers insight into the operations of what was once among Mexico’s foremost criminal organizations.

According to El Universal, the statements by Francisco Javier Arellano Felix, who was arrested by US officials off the coast of Mexico in 2006, are taken from an interview with officials from the Mexican Attorney General’s Office (PGR) in February 2012, in San Antonio, Texas. The former Tijuana Cartel leader, the younger brother of notorious capos Benjamin and Ramon Arellano Felix, told his interlocutors how his organization sought to corrupt efforts by the judiciary to rein them in. As the article states:

On repeated occasions and of their own will, they obstructed and impeded investigations and prosecutions of Tijuana Cartel activities, paying millions in bribes to judicial authorities and military officers, murdering informants, protected witnesses, and members of the judicial branch.

Arellano Felix also mentioned three public officials who worked for his organization (commonly referred to as both the Tijuana Cartel and as the Arellano Felix organization). The officials included Víctor Zatarain Cedano, former chief of Tijuana’s police under Mayor Jorge Hank Rhon; Francisco Castro Trenti, former head of Tijuana’s forensic investigation unit and the brother of a politician who ran for governor in Baja California earlier this month; and Narciso Agundez Montaño, the former governor of Baja California Sur, the state occupying the sparsely populated southern half of the Pacific peninsula. 

InSight Crime Analysis

With one exception, there is little in the report on Arellano Felix’s statements that is particularly surprising. A decade ago, just before the death of Ramon and the arrest of Benjamin Arellano Felix, the group was arguably Mexico’s most powerful criminal organization, so there is nothing unusual about them killing witnesses, corrupting officials, and perverting the criminal justice system. 

The more noteworthy portions of the leaked report are what appears to have been left out. Arellano Felix surely has information about more dirty public officials than the three mentioned by El Universal, yet only these three relatively minor figures have been named. The reasons may well be political: the Arellano Felix clan enjoyed its heyday while the state was under the control of Felipe Calderon’s National Action Party (PAN). However, no PAN official was singled out by Arellano Felix. On the contrary, the trio are all linked to prominent members of the opposition under Calderon. Since high-ranking members of Calderon’s Attorney General’s Office were charged with conducting the interview, there existed a clear political interest in downplaying the role of PAN state governments in aiding the Arellano Felix criminal enterprise.

Furthermore, the lack of clarity regarding the circumstances of the interview confuse the issue and raise further questions about the government’s motives in pursuing a dialogue with Arellano Felix. Zeta, a Tijuana newsweekly famous for its investigations into the Tijuana Cartel, reported that Marisela Morales, Calderon’s former attorney general, interrogated Arellano Felix herself, in a separate interview in San Diego. 

Zeta, which noted that neither the US nor the Mexican government has confirmed the veracity of the leaked report, also questions the relative lack of information about the Arellano Felix group’s current structure. A degree of uncertainty surrounds public perceptions of the current leadership, with Francisco Arellano Sanchez and Enedina Arellano Felix (Francisco Javier’s sister) often described as heading the group. Yet little is known about either of these figures, or how they interact with one another, how the modus operandi has evolved, or what kind of relationship the Tijuana Cartel has with the Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and the Sinaloa Cartel. Hours of interrogations of a former boss of Tijuana were a great opportunity to answer some of those questions and add to the public understanding of the group, yet the PGR appears to have let it slip away. 

The one surprising revelation from Arellano Felix was that in 1989, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada sanctioned the Tijuana Cartel’s attempts to kill Guzman, his partner for more than a decade. The attempts to kill Guzman led to some of the most spectacular acts of violence in modern Mexico, particularly the killing of Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo, after Arellano Felix gunmen confused the religious leader’s entourage of vehicles with Guzman’s in 1993.

Assuming the story is true, everything has changed in the years since. Not only are Zambada and Guzman allies and partners, but the Arellano Felix clan and the Sinaloa Cartel appear to coexist in Tijuana (a major reason for the lower homicide rate seen in the past several years). 

This is another example of the volatility that characterizes organized crime. The tangled web of enmities and alliances is constantly changing, and it’s not just Zambada and Guzman, or Sinaloa and Tijuana. For instance, the Beltran Leyva Organization and Guzman were once famous allies with deep familial ties, until suddenly, in 2008, they were sworn enemies. Similar examples are not hard to find. 

Thanks to this volatility, Mexico’s organized crime networks have lacked the stability needed for them to function without bloodshed. Atop this fragile network of breaking alliances,  establishing an enduring set of conditions to ensure public security is arguably near impossible.

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