How Officials Jolted a Cocaine Cartel

For more than a decade, Benjamin Arellano Felix was untouchable — allegedly a billionaire drug dealer who enjoyed protection bought by bribes to police and government officials.

But on March 9, the rules were about to change.

That's when a special Mexican Army unit burst through the door of Arellano Felix's suburban hideaway in the tourist town of Puebla, Mexico, and confronted a man in his bare feet.

"When the army came, he surrendered," Jose Luis Vasconsuelos, the chief of Mexico's organized crime unit, told ABCNEWS through a translator. "At first, we found him flustered. Afterwards, he told us that he was OK. He was tired of running."

"Finally, I told him that in the past sometimes, you have beaten us, but today we win," Vasconsuelos said. "He was very cold, very tranquil and he stayed that way all the way to Mexico City."

Tracking the Family

The Mexican authorities finally won a round with the man they said was the head of the Arellano Felix drug cartel, also known as AFO — allegedly responsible for the shipping and distribution of an estimated 40 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States. But the victory came only after an unconventional, highly secretive investigation that involved tracking Arellano Felix's family.

The method had already been used on the American side of the border when Arellano's wife and three children moved to a wealthy southern California neighborhood in the 1990s.

"We did that because we felt exploiting a family by conducting continuous surveillance on them would, I hope, lead us to her meeting with Benjamin," said Jack Hook, the Drug Enforcement Administration's special agent in charge of the Arellano Felix task force.

The DEA was convinced such a meeting could happen because as they watched the family, they learned the oldest daughter had a very recognizable and rare facial deformity. They also learned she was the soft spot in her father's violent life. That is why they were tracking her and her mother, Ruth, as they traveled around San Diego and occasionally across the border to Tijuana, Mexico, where they might meet Arellano Felix.

Most-Wanted Men

In 1993, Arellano Felix and his brother, Ramon, who officials say was the chief enforcer for the AFO, became the most-wanted men in Mexico, after they were linked to the murder of a popular Catholic cardinal. For nine years, the Arellano brothers proved their power allegedly by using bribery and bullets to stop every attempt to catch them.

"Arellano started with fear," said a former cartel employee "Steve," who asked ABCNEWS to conceal his true identity. "That's why loyalties were there, but out of fear. … It wasn't, 'will you take the money?' It's either you take the money or you get killed."

Eventually, the AFO seemingly controlled more than the drugs it moved across the border: They actually controlled the San Diego-Tijuana border crossing, Hook said.

"That's the largest land port of entry in the entire world," Hook added. "If you're an organization that wants to bring drugs into the United States through that plaza, you have to pay the AFO a tax to do that. If you don't pay that tax, they will come out and they will kill you."

By 1998, the Arellano brothers had been indicted in the U.S. for drug trafficking. Ramon was put on the FBI's 10 most wanted list.

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