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.

"One of the first times that I saw things were changing for Benjamin and Ramon were when we put up the posters at the border," Hook said. "We started getting telephone calls from people that knew of organizational members or had information, inside information on the organization."

‘Money, From the Floor to the Ceiling’

Even before the informers started to call, Ruth Arellano may have felt the pressure because she moved her family back to Mexico. It was in Monterrey, Mexico, that a special Mexican Army unit picked up the trail of Benjamin Arellano's family.

"In the closets and the dressing rooms, they had a lot of money, from the floor to the ceiling," one neighbor told ABCNEWS anonymously through a translator. "In other words, everything was filled with money. It was a lot. There were stacks of cash in the closet."

The large amounts of cash left a trail for investigators to follow.

Cloak-and-Dagger Investigation

But as investigators probed, they were forced into a cloak-and-dagger life because they felt they, too, were in jeopardy, even being watched by AFO cameras.

Vasconsuelos, a deeply religious lawyer, typically began his workday with a cup of coffee, but the rest of his day was less typical. He took his 40-minute drive to work in Mexico City in a bulletproof van, protected by bodyguards and a chase car following behind him.

Jose Pepe Patino, a friend and colleague also working closely with U.S. law enforcement, was kidnapped after he drove across the border from San Diego to Mexico. He was tortured to death, and his body was found in his car.

Patino had been betrayed by a Mexican official, which is why Vasconsuelos worked hard to plug leaks so his heavily guarded, 11th floor downtown office was safe.

He reorganized his team of investigators into isolated cells, and forbade them to talk to each other about their work. Only he saw all the most sensitive intelligence reports.

"We have very trustworthy people, very devoted people who love their country and who are convinced that this is the only way to combat these types of criminal organizations," Vasconsuelos said. "That loyalty and honesty are the only way of maintaining our strength for the battle."

U.S. drug enforcement officials believed they had a man they could trust in Vasconsuelos. They met regularly with him in Washington to work out strategies and share intelligence. For the first time, they were working together to crack a system of corruption — a system in which the Arellanos bought off enough police officers, government officials and generals to head off any investigation that got too close, said the DEA's Hook.

"We've had sources indicate to us that their monthly payment — corruption payments — totaled millions of dollars," he said.

"Federal police, they're usually, almost always, brand-new guys, hungry, right out of the academy, raring to go," Steve said. "They haven't been corrupted yet. They will be, within a month, we'll corrupt them."

Breaks in the Case

But a car that allegedly moved the payoff money would turn out to be one piece of the puzzle leading investigators to the family home of Benjamin Arellano Felix. Specifically, a key Arellano accomplice drove a white Jetta, a car investigators discovered in three locations in Puebla, where army surveillance then watched houses, sources said.

Another break, according to sources, came when Ramon was killed in February in a police shootout in the resort town of Mazatlan. Investigators were able to recover his cell phones with key numbers that would lead them once again to Puebla.

But would the Arellanos — believed to pay off everybody when they moved into a town, including local police — know they were there?

"Those [Mexican soldiers] who did the surveillance … were very clever at avoiding being recognized," Vasconsuelos said. "Perhaps at one moment, we may have sold Benjamin an ice cream and he did not realize who was selling it."

By March 8, Arellanos' suburban hideaway in Puebla had been under surveillance by military intelligence for weeks. Vasconsuelos was in his office in Mexico City, when he got a call at 7 p.m. It was time to find out if the most-wanted man in Mexico was in Puebla.

Just after midnight, the army commandos were ready to go. But the high-stakes operation was not without last-minute surprises.

"After we arrived, the bodyguards were no longer there," Vasconsuelos said. "There was a moment when we thought he had already escaped from Puebla. We thought he'd left."

But Arellanos was there, and his capture stunned even those who had pursued him.

‘They Are Humans, Not Gods’

Arellano was taken to Almaloya, Mexico's maximum-security prison. With his head covered, he was surrounded by soldiers, who were taking no chances on this prisoner getting away.

But there are doubts over whether even the capture of a huge fish like Benjamin Arellano and the death of his brother, Ramon, will make a dent in the flow of drugs coming into the United States.

There also remain unanswered questions: How did they allegedly run their business? Who did they bribe and murder along the way?

Now, Mexican officials will have to make the case against Arellano and more than a dozen top-ranking cartel members arrested in the last two years, who still may have enough power and money to corrupt the judicial system.

"It's going to be very interesting to see in the Mexican judicial system — we're talking about judges — are going to have the capability to try these people, understanding how dangerous they are and what it means to them and their family," said Ana Maria Salazar, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for drug enforcement, who now works in Mexico. "I have my doubts."