The Tijuana Cartel is Dead: US


The United States has declared the end of Mexico’s once mighty Tijuana Cartel following the sentencing of kingpin Eduardo Arellano Felix to 15 years in prison — a claim that ignores the changing nature of the country’s criminal dynamic.

Eduardo Arellano Felix, alias “El Doctor,” was convicted by a California judge of money laundering after he pleaded guilty to the lesser charge and forfeited $50 million in order to avoid a maximum 140 year sentence for racketeering and drug trafficking, reported Reuters.

He was the last of four brothers who controlled the Tijuana Cartel, also known as the Arellano Felix Organization (AFO), to be jailed or killed. 

“The sentence that Eduardo Arellano Felix received today marks the end of an era in cartel history,” said US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent William Sherman. “The AFO is finished, others have moved in and are attempting to take their place.”

InSight Crime Analysis

In its heyday of the 1990s and early 2000s, the Tijuana Cartel was one of Mexico’s most powerful criminal organizations, controlling the border city from which it took its name and the movement of hundreds of millions of dollars-worth of drugs into the United States. Along with the Juarez Cartel it was one of two major organizations to emerge from the split of one of the first Mexican drug trafficking organizations, the Guadalajara Cartel.

SEE ALSO: Tijuana Cartel Profile

Rounds of arrests and extraditions during the early 2000s weakened the group, and following the arrest of Eduardo Arellano Felix in 2008 they split into two rival factions.The side headed by Eduardo’s nephew Fernando Sanchez Arellano, “El Ingeniero,” gradually appears to have gained dominance and ultimately entered into an alliance with the Tijuana Cartel’s once mortal enemies, the Sinaloa Cartel. Sanchez Arellano is now believed to head what remains of the cartel alongside Enedina Arellano Felix, Eduardo’s sister and Fernando’s mother.

De-centralized networks, fragmentation, the formation of alliances with rival groups — this is the modern face of Mexican crime, even among its most powerful organizations, including the Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel. Within this new dynamic, the monolithic Tijuana Cartel of the past is certainly long gone, but its evolved criminal structures remain very much a part of the Mexican underworld.

Tijuana Cartel


The Tijuana Cartel, also known as the Arellano Félix 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 the western state of Sinaloa. Its founding members were Sinaloans who worked closely with the legendary trafficker Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, alias “El Padrino,” who began moving marijuana and heroin into the United States in the 1960s. El Padrino worked with a group of Sinaloans including Pedro Avilés Pérez, Rafael Caro Quintero and Ernesto Fonseca.

The group left Sinaloa and formed the Guadalajara Cartel in the late 1970s amid campaigns to eradicate illicit crops, mass arrests and a military offensive in their home state that left Avilés dead. He was replaced by another Sinaloan named Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo,” who would go on to form the infamous Sinaloa Cartel. The 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 Félix brothers — Benjamin, Ramón, 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, the Guadalajara Cartel began working with Colombian traffickers, moving large quantities of cocaine. In the early 1980s, a veteran agent of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) 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. El Chapo and his partner, Héctor 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 Félix brothers would get Tijuana.

The brothers looked to expand almost immediately. Shortly after El Padrino’s imprisonment, Ramón Arellano Félix killed a close associate of El Chapo in Sinaloa. The fight quickly spread. In May 1993, the Arellano Félix brothers sent gunmen to intercept El Chapo at the Guadalajara airport, striking and killing a Mexican cardinal instead. Francisco Rafael Arellano Félix was arrested by Mexican authorities in 1993, but after El Chapo and Palma were arrested, the Arellano Félix clan grew to unprecedented heights. They made a pact with the Caro Quintero clan in Sonora, the Milenio Cartel in Michoacán, as well as alliances in Colima, Jalisco and Oaxaca that allowed them to dominate the trade from north to south.

After El Chapo escaped prison in 2001, a new round of fighting began. In February 2002, Ramón Arellano Félix traveled to Mazatlán to oversee the assassination of Sinaloa Cartel faction leader Ismael Zambada García, alias “El Mayo.” However El Mayo’s men were able to kill Ramón instead. A month later Mexican authorities arrested Benjamin Arellano Félix, leaving Eduardo Arellano Félix 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 Unite States 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 Sánchez Arellano, alias “El Ingeniero,” headed up one faction, while Eduardo Teodoro García 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 Félix 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 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 have begun expanding its presence abroad.

In 2016, following the re-arrest of El Chapo, evidence emerged that the remnants of the Tijuana Cartel had formed an alliance with the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) seeking to challenge the Sinaloa Cartel’s hegemony in the northern border state of Baja California. Despite the capture of several top suspected members of the Tijuana Cartel since that time, the group appears to retain significant control in the area.


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 Tijuana Cartel is suspected of forming a truce with former rival the Sinaloa Cartel. However, new reports indicate 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 Cartel head El Chapo may allow the Tijuana Cartel to consolidate its control in its home turf, especially in alliance with more powerful groups like the CJNG.

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


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.

Sinaloa Cartel Members Rank as Tijuana’s Most Wanted


In one indication of how much the conflict in Tijuana has evolved since 2009, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) issued a new poster identifying the six most-wanted drug traffickers in the border region — five of them members of the Sinaloa Cartel.

Unsurprisingly, two of the most-wanted on the poster were the top leaders of the Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada.

Also named is Fernando Sanchez Arellano, alias “El Ingeniero,” an enigmatic leader of the Tijuana Cartel.

Rounding out the top six is another three members of the Sinaloa Cartel: brothers Alfonzo and Rene Arzate Garcia, alias “El Aquiles” and “La Rana” respectively, and Jose Antonio Soto Gastelum, alias “El Tigre.”

InSight Crime Analysis 

The fact that the DEA now considers these Sinaloa Cartel members to be the major drug traffickers in the Tijuana-San Diego area is partly illustrative of how badly weakened the Tijuana Cartel, or Arellano Felix Organization, has become. The Tijuana Cartel lost influence due to a bloody internal feud and a drawn-out war with the Sinaloa Cartel, until a truce was established circa 2009. This resulted in several years of peace in Tijuana, although there have been some signs of rising violence in the city and the surrounding state, Baja California. 

As Tijuana-based Zeta magazine has reported, state security authorities have identified Alfonzo Arzate Garcia and Jose Antonio Soto among the three-most wanted men in Baja California. However, neither the Arzate brothers nor Soto are believed to currently reside in Tijuana. 

DEA most wanted drug traffickers san diego tijuana t670

Baja California: A Test for Mexico’s Pax-Mafioso?


In one indication that the Sinaloa Cartel may be wary of attracting federal government attention back to Tijuana, one of the cartel’s top leaders reportedly told other criminal bosses to keep homicide levels low in Baja California state. The message seems to fit a pattern in which there may be a move towards a more peaceful coexistence in some traditionally critical hotspots.

According to a new report by Zeta magazine, one of the Sinaloa Cartel’s top leaders, Ismael Zambada Garcia, alias “El Mayo,” issued a warning to at least eight sub-commanders responsible for overseeing drug trafficking operations in Baja California to “stop heating up the plaza” – that is, clamp down on homicides that could be disrupting the international drug trade and attracting too much of the government’s attention. 

During the first 100 days of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration (December 1 to March 10), Baja California saw 161 homicides, making it the tenth most violent state in the country. This is only a slight increase from a similar time period last year (January 1 to March 31, or 90 days), when the state registered 145 murders.

According to Zeta magazine, a band of assassins led by Luis Mendoza, alias “El Güero Chompas,” is behind the uptick in violence. Baja California’s largest city, Tijuana, where the violence is concentrated, saw 42 homicides in January alone. The magazine says that Mendoza’s group is no longer following orders from the upper ranks of the Sinaloa Cartel leadership, and are aggressively assassinating small-time drug dealers in order to take over their business. 

Zambada’s order to slow the fighting may be hard to enact. Zeta says that none of the eight Sinaloa Cartel lieutenants warned by Zambada are currently based in Baja California, having set up expensive hideouts in Sinaloa, Guadalajara, and Sonora states. As a result, the day-to-day running of their Baja California operations has been left in the hands of more undisciplined and inexperienced family members, who are more prone to using violence as a way to resolve disputes. 

Zeta magazine notes that even though the Baja California State Security Council and the state and national Attorney General’s Office have identified these eight Sinaloa Cartel sub-commanders, no arrest warrants have been issued against any of them. Only two of the eight suspects have ever been targeted in police operations, and both managed to escape. 

InSight Crime Analysis

Baja California may be the country’s first test of a whether a pax-mafioso is even sustainable. Violence has dropped overall in Baja California in part due to government efforts, but also thanks to an uneasy peace enforced between rival criminal organizations, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Tijuana Cartel, a.k.a. the Arellano Felix Organization (AFO), in Tijuana.

With violence levels slipping downwards, federal forces have scaled back their efforts in Baja California.The military has shut down at least six road checkpoints in the state so far this year. Meanwhile, the controversial and combative security chief Julian Leyzaola, who was praised for helping pacify Tijuana, has since been transferred to Ciudad Juarez.

What’s more, as Zeta magazine points out, the fact that the Sinaloa Cartel’s operatives in Baja California have all committed federal crimes — yet have no federal arrest warrants issued against them (which would make it easier to pursue them in states outside of Baja California) — supports the theory that the Mexican government, under new Peña Nieto, is scaling back its attacks on drug trafficking groups in an effort to lower the intensity of the state-cartel conflict. Peña Nieto took power December 1, after which there has been a significant drop in prosecutions of drug trafficking crimes. According to data from the Ministry of the Interior (pdf), government prosecutors opened an average of 2,322 criminal cases per month during 2012 for what are known as “crimes against health,” which are mostly drug trafficking crimes; while during the first two months of 2013, government prosecutors opened an average of 821 cases per month for “crimes against health.”

To be fair, this tendency towards less drug prosecutions was already in motion prior to December 1, but it is exactly what an international drug trafficking syndicate like the Sinaloa Cartel wants and may be willing to trade for enforcing a policy of less violence. And it may help explain why El Mayo saw fit to warn his sub-commanders about letting the violence in Baja California get out of control.

There are certainly counterarguments to this theory. The other Sinaloa Cartel strongholds, including Chihuahua (417 murders during Peña Nieto’s first 100 days in office) and Sinaloa (324 murders) are among the tops in murder rates. And the government maintains troop and federal police levels in most of Mexico. 

But it is also clear that it is in both the Sinaloa Cartel’s and the government’s interest to keep the peace in Tijuana, an area that has a history of organized crime-related violence but could be a model for criminal-state coexistence. The current homicide rate in Baja California still represents a marked improvement in security compared to five years ago, when the state was the third-most violent in Mexico, registering a total of 1,019 deaths for the entire year. 

However, it is a difficult balance to strike. Nationwide, the government recently reported a slight drop in homicides. But the atomization of these criminal groups, as evidenced in Tijuana, may be a dynamic that neither the government nor the strongest criminal groups can counteract.

How Mexico’s Underworld Became Violent


Mexico’s battles with drug trafficking have been a constant in the country’s modern history, but the activities and organization of the criminal groups operating in the clandestine industry have been in a state of constant flux. That flux, which continues today, lies at the heart of Mexico’s violence.

During the 20th century and into the 21st, Mexico’s criminal organizations have grown increasingly sophisticated, globalized, and diversified. Whereas 90 years ago they were largely family organizations shipping marijuana and bootleg liquor to the US, today they traffic any number of products to and from nations in all four corners of the globe.

Over the course of the same period, Mexico’s criminal gangs also underwent a related process of consolidation and growth that peaked in the 1980s. The family operations gave way to steadily larger, wealthier criminal organizations, culminating in the Guadalajara Cartel, run by Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, that controlled drug trafficking in most of Mexico during the presidency of Miguel de la Madrid. Since then, the trend has been the opposite: a breakup of the larger organizations, and the rise of regional local challengers to their supremacy. The chaos that followed has engulfed a nation.

(This article is adapted from a longer research paper appearing in a recent edition of the journal Trends in Organized Crime.)

Pre-modern Groups

Mexico’s smuggling networks have emerged as an unfortunate emblem of the nation only relatively recently, but they have existed for more than a century. Initially, they were not dedicated to methamphetamine and cocaine, two of the drugs that currently offer the highest profit margins, but rather opium, and later marijuana. These groups, which first began to emerge toward the end of the 19th century, were initially not seen as a major public security threat. Indeed, newspaper reports at the time detail the concern for opium users, not bloodshed attached to feeding the market.

These groups were largely family-based. In the case of the opium traffickers, these groups were originally concentrated among the Chinese immigrants populated across Mexico’s northern region, especially northwestern states like Sinaloa. Reports from the era indicate that the marijuana production, on the other hand, was not especially associated with Chinese immigrants, and marijuana traffickers remained largely small-time operations that continued to be built around local family ties. One example of such an organization was that of Maria Dolores Estevez, or Lola la Chata, as she was more commonly known. Lola and her clan trafficked in vice (especially marijuana) in Juarez for some 30 years in the middle of the 20th century, though without ever achieving the wealth or international notoriety of today’s groups.

But if the early groups had a lesser impact on the state of the nation than today’s do, they were still instrumental in setting the stage for the future development of Mexico’s trafficking organizations. The groups that emerged in that period, while far different from their future iteration, spawned certain characteristics that would be vital to their coming growth.

First, they created smuggling networks in and out of the remote Sierra Madre Occidental, which lies along the convergence of drug-producing states Chihuahua, Durango, and Sinaloa. These states have remained home to the most powerful organizations ever since, and have birthed the nation’s most notorious traffickers. The tendency toward familial link in drug trafficking also remains very common today — see, for instance, the Beltran Leyva Organization — although the complexity of trafficking today requires any criminal group to branch out beyond blood ties.

The early groups also developed a capacity to slip past the US border, feeding the market for bootleg alcohol (during prohibition), marijuana, and opium. Since the US market for illegal drugs was later to become the most lucrative in the world, this gave Mexican traffickers the most sought-after job skills in the industry.

Furthermore, these early 20th century groups began to develop links to the political system, especially under the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which emerged from the embers of the Mexican Revolution and dominated the nation’s governance until 2000. For instance, a major Chinese-Mexican trafficker in the 1930s was Antonio Wong Yin, a close friend of the mayor of Torreon (where he was based), the governor of Coahuila (which houses Torreon), and the army general charged with controlling the region. Such political support for traffickers, which are eerily similar to the stories of corruption that periodically emerge in the Mexican media today, was not uncommon.

Because Mexican groups thrive in large part with the support or tolerance of government agents, these early inroads from the forerunners of the political system were priceless, both at the time and as the industry grew.

The Internationalization of Mexican Crime

The introduction of cocaine to the US drug market in the 1970s and 1980s changed the circumstances dramatically for Mexico’s drug traffickers. Most important, the profit margins exploded; a recent report from the International Crisis Group referred to a 50-fold price discrepancy for a kilo of cocaine in Colombia compared with the same kilo in the US, from $2,400 to $120,000. Today’s substantial divergences were presumably even more yawning four decades ago, as US prices for cocaine have spent most of the meantime in decline.

Nothing like those profits was available from marijuana trafficking. As a consequence, successful Mexican cocaine smugglers were able to accumulate far more wealth than their criminal ancestors. The tendency was furthered as Mexican gangs, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, began to insist on payment not in cash but in product from their South American partners; at that point they were no longer subcontractors but rather wholesalers, with exploding revenues to match. This shift upended the power equilibrium between the traffickers and their government sponsors; the political system had an increasingly difficult time administering unruly gangsters.

The government, however, remained intimately involved, even as it lost some degree of control. Traffickers had deep relations with the political and security apparatus in Mexico; many of the most notorious capos, such as Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, and Juan Jose Esparragoza, alias “El Azul,” were former police officers. A parade of high-ranking government officials, from former Federal Police Commander Guillermo Gonzalez Calderoni, who was reportedly a favorite of President Carlos Salinas in the 1980s and 1990s, to General Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, the new drug czar who was found to be on the Juarez Cartel payroll in 1997 (and made famous in the movie “Traffic”), have been discovered working for the groups that they are meant to attack. Such arrests, to say nothing of the rumors surrounding officials who are never formally accused, continue to the present day.

Another important shift was toward a more international system. With cocaine the most important substance in the industry, the Mexicans could no longer rely only on their connections within their country and at the border to do business. Ties to cocaine producers in South American nations like Peru, Bolivia, and especially Colombia became essential. This added another several steps to the supply chain, and made feeding the US market a more complex endeavor. A globalized approach became a necessity.

Largely in response to this new environment, Mexican groups themselves grew more sophisticated and more complex, pioneering new methods of airborne and maritime smuggling. They also shifted toward a more hegemonic operational model; the model of a small family firm directing their operation from a marginal Mexico City suburb or barrio in Juarez was no longer viable. Such smaller groups were absorbed or pushed out by new hegemons, which controlled entire regions and coopted public officials on a growing scale. Thus, control of the proverbial “plaza,” or trafficking corridor, became a requisite. 

The best example of the new hegemonic model was the Guadalajara Cartel of the aforementioned Felix Gallardo. Originally a police officer and governor’s bodyguard from Sinaloa, Felix Gallardo and his crew moved south to Guadalajara in the 1970s in response to Operation Condor, in which the Mexican army launched a ferocious eradication campaign in the Sierra Madre mountain range. From Guadalajara, he was partnered with Colombian traffickers like Pablo Escobar, and became Escobar’s most important Mexico associate. He also came to dominate the underworld in much of his country; Felix Gallardo and his subordinates controlled contraband within most of Mexico’s Pacific Coast and its US border.

The Groups of Today

The Mexican criminal organizations of today differ from those of Felix Gallardo’s era, and even more so from their predecessors a century ago. The most important factor is that the trend toward consolidation ended with Felix Gallardo. Following his arrest in 1989, the boss reportedly divided up most of Mexico and handed out parcels to his underlings, so as to prevent a breakup of the organization he had built. However, the gambit –which may be apocryphal; Felix Gallardo has told reporters that he had nothing to do with it — essentially failed. What had been the Guadalajara Cartel devolved, broadly speaking, into the Tijuana and Juarez Cartels, which were mortal enemies through the 1990s, despite their shared roots. These groups in turn, spawned a handful of further competing organizations, such as the Sinaloa Cartel, the Beltran Leyva Organization, and, in recent years, the Jalisco Cartel – New Generation.

That is, the splinter groups have given birth to splinter groups. The weakness of the remaining groups have encouraged other upstarts to rise up and challenge the existing bosses, turning the process of atomization, as it is often called, into a vicious cycle. Consequently, no recent group has ever matched Felix Gallardo’s territorial control, nor does it appear likely that any one ever will.

This cycle has been a significant driver of violence. The rivalries between the new gangs are in and of themselves violent contests. Tens of thousands have died thanks to disputes between the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas, for example, and between the Juarez Cartel and the Sinaloa Cartel. The problem is worsened because the fallen capos are often replaced not by businessmen but rather hit men, whose natural inclination is toward violence. Today’s groups also suffer from a greater degree of internal instability; as InSight Crime has reported about the Zetas in recent years, amid a context of constant criminal warfare and uneven cash flows, violent subordinates are often tempted to ignore or challenge their bosses.

Today’s gangs are far more reliant on alternative sources of income, beyond drug trafficking. These include oil theft, extortion, kidnapping, human smuggling, robbery, and pirate merchandising. In all likelihood, the revenues of these crimes collectively amount to no more than a few billion dollars a year, but they impose a greater cost on the society as a whole. A successful international drug deal imposes no direct cost on the community at large, but a kidnapper nearly always targets the most vulnerable. This is also true for extortion, which, if common enough, amounts to a disincentive against success for entrepreneurs.

Finally, the groups today no longer unquestionably subordinate the state. For all his power, Felix Gallardo ultimately answered to the political system. When the federal government decided to bring him down, it had no problem in finding him and incarcerating him for life. (According to accounts of his arrest, when he saw the Police Commander Gonzalez Calderoni just before his arrest, Felix Gallardo greeted him as a friend coming to visit.)

Today, this is no longer the case. The increased revenues from cocaine trafficking, discussed above, has contributed to this, and is an important part of the story, but developments within Mexico’s political system are just as important. Mexico’s criminal organizations are weaker in certain respects, but so is the state. The PRI, the political party that dominated from the 1930s onward, lost power for the first time in 2000, and the federal government has never recovered the near-omnipotence it once enjoyed.

As a consequence, the traffickers no longer exist within a system administered by the federal government. Rather, both the state and organized crime are in a constant power struggle. Given that the PRI was an authoritarian entity, this loss of power is, on balance, a good thing, but one of the unfortunate side effects was the state’s growing incapacity to impose itself on organized crime.

*This article is adapted from a longer research paper appearing in a recent edition of the journal Trends in Organized Crime.

Tijuana Architect Case Calls Attention to Unwilling Drug Cartel Mules


A noted Tijuana architect received a lenient sentence for cocaine smuggling after authorities confirmed that he’d been forced to do so after being threatened by an unidentified client, highlighting the plight of unwilling drug mules in Mexico. 

The architect, Eugenio Velazquez, was sentenced to six months in prison, although the minimum mandatory sentence for smuggling a controlled substance into the US is 10 years. Velazquez was arrested in March after US border authorities found a nearly 13-pound shipment of cocaine in his vehicle at the San Ysidro border crossing in San Diego. 

A US federal judge issued the sentence after Velazquez’s defense team was able corroborate assertions that he’d been forced at gunpoint into smuggling. According to Velazquez, a dual US-Mexico citizen who lives in San Diego, he was hired by a client to design a ranch outside of Tijuana. After the client demanded a $40,000 payment in return for providing Velazquez with security while crossing the border, the client threatened Velasquez and his family, saying that if he couldn’t pay up, he would have to smuggle drugs into the US. 

Velazquez, who is known for designing Tijuana’s Cultural Center, said he was “satisfied” with the judge’s ruling.

InSight Crime Analysis

Velazquez, an upper-middle-class professional with a successful career, does not fit the profile of a typical drug mule. The impoverished and unemployed frequently turn to drug smuggling or other forms of crime in order to survive economically. 

Rather than economic need, there are other reasons why Velazquez’s profile may have proved attractive to drug traffickers. He had a special permit that allowed him to cross the San Diego-Tijuana border rapidly. And as Proceso notes, professionals fearful of putting themselves further at risk are more likely to plead guilty to federal drug charges in the US, rather than agreeing to collaborate with investigators and naming names. 

The Velazquez case calls attention to the forcible recruitment of unwilling drug smugglers by Mexican cartels. Migrants are frequently used to transport marijuana shipments across the US-Mexico border. Other victims have been used as forced labor. As documented in InSight Crime’s special on human trafficking, these include young professionals and engineers used to work as communications technicians. 

Eduardo Arellano Felix Extradited to the US


The last of the Arellano Felix brothers to be arrested has now been extradited to the US, a testament to how far the family has fallen since the 1990s, when they controlled the powerful Tijuana Cartel.

Eduardo Arellano Felix, the fourth oldest of the seven Arellano Felix brothers, made his first appearance in a US court on September 4, after being extradited to the US five days earlier. He pled not guilty to charges of drug trafficking, money laundering, and racketeering.

Eduardo was arrested in a joint operation between the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Mexican security forces on October 26, 2008. He is believed to have assumed control of the Tijuana Cartel in 2002 alongside his sister Enedina, after his brother Ramon was killed in a gunfight in 2002.

Two of Eduardo’s brothers, Benjamin and Francisco, are currently serving prison sentences in the US. In January, Benjamin Arellano Felix pled guilty as part of a plea bargain, and was then sentenced to 25 years in prison and ordered to turn over $100 million in criminal assets. Francisco was captured by the US Coast Guard in 2006 and was sentenced in life in prison in 2007.

InSight Crime Analysis

Due to the severity of the charges against him, Eduardo is unlikely to face a different outcome from that of Benjamin and Francisco: he will most likely spend the rest of his life in prison. If convicted, he could face a sentence of up to 140 years. His trial is one indication of the appeal of the extradition process: in the US, it is virtually impossible for top-level drug traffickers like the Arellano Felixes to continue running their criminal enterprises from prison.

When he was actively running the Tijuana Cartel, Eduardo was known for emphasizing a low-profile approach, generally favoring corruption over brutal acts of violence. Under the control of Eduardo and his sister Enedina, the Tijuana Cartel concentrated on strengthening the relationship between the cartel and corrupt elements in the security forces, including municipal and federal police, and the judiciary. The family avoided ostentation and appearances in public. As a report by Zeta magazine highlighted, the house where Eduardo was arrested in 2008 was indicative of the non-extravagant lifestyle which he promoted. it had none of the lavish decorations associated with traditional drug trafficking families, and instead was furnished in order to serve as a long-term hide-out, with a stockpile of video games and reading material for entertainment.

Eduardo’s extradition to the US was an important step towards the dismantling of the Tijuana Cartel. Another member of the family, Fernando Sanchez Arellano, alias “El Ingeniero,” is now believed to run the organization. But as InSight Crime has previously reported, the Tijuana Cartel has proved to be resilient, bolstered by an alleged truce with the Sinaloa Cartel that has brought relative calm to the city since 2010. For El Ingeniero, the risk is that this pact with the Sinaloa Cartel could encourage more operatives to defect to the more powerful group, eventually causing the remains of the Arellano Felix organization to be steadily absorbed into the Sinaloan organization. In such a scenario — and with a slew of Arellano Felix family members, including Eduardo, behind bars — the current concept of the Tijuana Cartel as a group primarily controlled by the Arellano Felix family could soon become obsolete.

Tijuana Cartel Survives, Despite Decade-Long Onslaught


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.