Fierce Mexican Drug Wars Drench Country In Blood And Corruption

(Second of two parts)

TIJUANA, Mexico - This city is the main battlefield in a ferocious war for the border that has raged across Mexico, spilling south to Venezuela and north to San Francisco.

At stake: the Pacific corridor that supplies Colombian cocaine to California, one of the most lucrative smuggling pipelines in the world.

The combatants are two major Mexican drug cartels - one based in Tijuana, the other in the northwestern state of Sinaloa. More than 200 people have been killed in their battles during the past five years.

The conflict has also produced a list of notable victims: The former state attorney general of Sinaloa, murdered while jogging in a Mexico City park. The head of the Sinaloa human-rights commission, slain on orders of a federal police commander. A Roman Catholic cardinal, mowed down in a Guadalajara airport shootout. A federal police commander, killed by fellow officers guarding a Tijuana drug lord. The Tijuana police chief, ambushed on a highway. And most recently, the former state attorney general of Jalisco, shot as he left home to teach a law class.

The repercussions have been felt at the highest levels of the Mexican government, battering a president, a governor and an ambassador. The rival cartels have enlisted political figures, police forces, business magnates, U.S. border inspectors, San Diego gang members and rich Mexican youths.

Driven by U.S. dollars and clan hatred, the gangsters have dueled in a series of military-style attacks using heavy weapons and explosives.

Some victories

In a seeming triumph, a Baja California special prosecutor last month ended a yearlong investigation of the murder of the city police chief and issued warrants for two federal police commanders allegedly allied with the Tijuana cartel. Although federal prosecutors promised to round up the fugitives, they have made little progress.

Also, on June 23 police arrested Luis Hector Palma Salazar, purported leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel, in the 1993 airport slaying of Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo.

"There are powerful obstacles within the state police forces, people allied with the narcos," a regional Mexican investigator lamented. "The federal police are another obstacle. And the third enemy is the bad guys themselves. Organized crime has the support and participation of politicians. It happened in Colombia. And it is happening in Mexico."

The protagonists are the alleged kingpins of the Sinaloa cartel, Palma and Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman, and their Tijuana nemeses, the Arellano Felix brothers - Benjamin, Javier and Ramon.

Palma and Guzman are both in prison, and the swashbuckling Arellanos no longer make the jet-set party circuit or appear in the Tijuana social pages as they did until mid-1993, according to police and anti-corruption activists.

But the rival operations continue pumping drugs north: mostly cocaine that comes to the Mexican interior from Colombia and is sent by rail, truck and small plane to northwest border cities.

This Imperial Valley corridor accounted for almost half the cocaine seized along the U.S. Southwestern border during the past three years, according to statistics compiled by a U.S. anti-drug task force.

"We have reliable information that every load of cocaine that comes into Mexicali is guarded by Mexican federal police," said a high-ranking U.S. law-enforcement official, who asked not to be identified.

When Palma was captured, seven federal agents acting as bodyguards were arrested with him, and authorities said 33 other federal agents who worked with Palma were in custody.

At one point last year, mid- and high-level federal police-commander positions in three northwestern states - Baja California, Baja California Sur and Sonora - were held by three politically connected brothers in their 20s named Garcia Gaxiola, Mexican officials say.

One of the brothers, Rodolfo, took the post in Baja in April. He is now one of the fugitives charged with killing the Tijuana police chief.

The corruptive influence reaches across the border. A continuing probe of U.S. border inspectors has resulted in charges against two Calexico inspectors for waving across tons of smuggled cocaine in exchange for bribes. Just last month, a grand juror from the Imperial Valley was convicted in San Diego federal court of leaking sensitive information to traffickers.

And huge drug profits flood the interconnected economies of California and Baja California.

U.S. agents arrested the owners of several Southern California currency exchanges as part of a massive money-laundering indictment in April.

In Baja, cash-intensive industries such as tourism and construction have become hotbeds of money laundering, according to law-enforcement officials. Carloads of smuggled cash enter a Mexican banking system that has been slow to establish safeguards, authorities said.

Gangsters also have acquired trucking companies and sought consultants with expertise in the North American Free Trade Agreement, "someone knowledgeable who could counsel them on how to take advantage of NAFTA to move their product," said Craig Chretien, special agent in charge of the DEA in San Diego.

The antagonists are all said by Mexican and U.S. law-enforcement agents to be former proteges of Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, the imprisoned kingpin known as "The Godfather," who is a relative of the Arellanos. While the Arellano brothers inherited the Felix empire in the late 1980s, Palma and Guzman allegedly broke away to form the Sinaloa cartel. "The Godfather" took vicious revenge in 1989, according to a high-ranking Mexican law-enforcement official.

"Felix, like the twisted old man that he is, sends a group of Venezuelan narcos, led by a guy named Clavel, to infiltrate Guero's (Palma's) family," the official said.

Rafael Clavel Moreno ran off with Palma's wife and two small children, according to Mexican police. After persuading the wife to withdraw $7 million of Palma's money from a bank account, Clavel killed the woman in San Francisco and took the two children to Venezuela, where he threw them off a bridge, according to Mexican police. He died in a Venezuelan prison.

The Palma-Guzman alliance allegedly ordered the murders of the former Sinaloa attorney general, Rodolfo Alvarez Farber, and the state's human-rights-commission president, Norma Corona Sapien, who was looking into police corruption and had served as a lawyer for Venezuelan traffickers connected to Felix. Corona's death in 1990 spurred Carlos Salinas de Gortari, then president, to form Mexico's national human-rights commission.

During the next several years, car-bomb attacks and wild street clashes claimed dozens of lives in the cities of Culiacan, Guadalajara and Tijuana. The gunmen often sported automatic weapons and police or military uniforms.

In November 1992, the Arellanos barely escaped a commando-style assault mounted by Guzman forces on a Puerto Vallarta disco, police say. The federal police contingent had left town before the gunfight; credentials of the Baja California state judicial police were found on the bodies of slain Arellano soldiers. The Baja attorney general insisted the credentials were false.

Cardinal's slaying

The death of Cardinal Posadas of Guadalajara at an airport shootout on May 24, 1993, was the first major sign of the "narco-politics" crisis.

Posadas had arrived to pick up Msgr. Girolamo Prigione, the Vatican's ambassador in Mexico, at the Guadalajara air terminal just as the Arellanos ambushed Guzman. The official explanation is that gunmen mistook the 64-year-old cardinal, who was wearing black clerical garb, for Guzman or one of his entourage and shot him point-blank 14 times.

Critics, however, say the cardinal was slain because of his opposition to the cartels' power.

Eight of the suspects arrested in the case are members of a San Diego street gang recruited by the Arellanos. Police say gang members worked as traveling hit men, committing murders in Mexico, San Diego and Los Angeles. U.S. and Mexican police say the gang members were offered up as fall guys.

The Baja state government was the next institution hit by scandal. In March of last year, a gun battle erupted at a busy Tijuana intersection when an elite federal unit pulled over state police officers chauffeuring Ramon Arellano in a stolen Chevrolet Suburban. The seven officers from Mexico City were swarmed by carloads of gunmen - including Baja and federal police riding shotgun for Arellano. Five men died, among them the federal commander, Alejandro Castaneda Andrade, who came fatally close to catching his powerful prey.

On March 23, 1994, presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio was assassinated in Tijuana, a crime since linked to a suspected alliance of drug lords, politicians and security forces. And Federico Benitez Lopez, the reformist city police chief, was slain in a highway shooting five weeks later, allegedly on orders of the Arellano cartel.

The established motive for the chief's slaying was his refusal of $100,000 a month in bribes to rein in his municipal police, who were seizing more drugs than the federal police, the main drug-fighting agency. But authorities also suspect Benitez's independent inquiries into a suspected federal police cover-up of the Colosio case played a role.

Two other federal commanders

In addition to Rodolfo Garcia, suspects in the Benitez slaying include two other federal commanders, Raul Loza Parra and Marco Antonio Jacome Saldana, who led the initial Colosio investigation.

The state attorney general resigned under investigation in the federal-state shootout last year in Tijuana, and his deputy was briefly jailed - by officers under Garcia, the federal commander now charged in Benitez's murder.

In the mounting scandal, the opposition-party administration of Baja California Gov. Ernesto Ruffo Appel narrowly avoided collapse.

"We are fighting a monster," the regional Mexican investigator said.

"We have just begun to cut off a few tentacles," he continued. "But we are not close to killing it."