Kingpins Fall, But Drugs Keep Coming


Sept. 29, 2002 — -- On the U.S.-Mexico border crossing, the new most-wanted posters went up last June, and the biggest, most violent suspects in the multibillion-dollar drug business are finally out of the picture, their faces crossed out because they are out of commission.

Mexican officials had arrested or killed key leaders of the mighty Arellano Felix cartel, said to supply 40 percent of the cocaine that comes into the United States. In all, Mexico has arrested about two dozen big fish since President Vicente Fox came to office.

But law enforcement officials say the street price of cocaine, the key measure of supply and demand, has barely budged. That suggests the hydra effect, where new leaders of criminal or terrorist organizations inevitably emerge to replace even the biggest fish.

They didn't come much bigger than Benjamin Arellano Felix, head of the drug cartel alternately known as AFO. Mexican Army officers arrested Arellano Felix quietly at a home in Puebla, Mexico, on March 9, a month after his brother Ramon, the AFO's enforcer, was killed in a shootout.

Benjamin Arellano Felix had more influence and power over the U.S.-Mexico drug trade than anyone else in either country. Untouchable for 13 years, his cartel corrupted countless officials, generals and senior police. Those they couldn't buy, they killed. Ultimately, their power rivaled that of the Mexican state.

"After Ramon was killed, when Benjamin was taken into custody, the phone has rung off the hook," says Jack Hook, the Drug Enforcement Administration's special agent in charge of the Arellano Felix task force. "We have more leads, more witnesses and sources to talk to than we can probably handle right now."

For years, fear stopped informers from dialing the hot line, so that is a big change. But it appears to remain business as usual on the border — good business for drug runners.

"We still see tremendous amounts of cocaine coming across the border," Hook told ABCNEWS' Nightline. "And, not much has changed at all.

"Volume really hasn't changed," he added. "No change in the [U.S. street] price."

In fact, the Tijuana newspaper Zeta reports the Arellano family business is stronger than ever. Publisher Jesus Blancornelas, also author of a new book on the history of the Arellanos, believes that the younger members of the clan already have stepped in to take their place of their dead or captured older brothers.

"I think they'll be smarter," Blancornelas said through a translator. "They have seen their brothers in action and have learned from their mistakes and the unity is stronger."

Blancornelas is still protected by a dozen armed guards he's had since the Arellanos tried to kill him back in 1997. He escaped an assassination attempt that killed his driver.

Now, after the arrest and the inevitable trial of Benjamin, there are others who are afraid, he says, perhaps including Mexican politicians with ties to Arellano Felix.

"Benjamin Arellano respects those who arrested him, but he'll accuse those who he bought to protect him," Blancornelas said. "There will be vengeance by death or by accusation."

While some politicians may worry Arellano will talk, others who once worked for the cartel believe it was time for the brothers to go.

"There are people much more powerful than the Arellanos who feel a sense of relief that they're out of the picture now," said a former cartel employee "Steve," who asked ABCNEWS to conceal his true identity. "They can deal in more of a peaceful way … and in a more of a calculated way, not the old OK-Corral shoot-out type of thing. In other words, becoming more sophisticated. The Arellanos were becoming the dinosaur of the cartel era."

A violent era seems to be over, but does it make a difference? It depends on which side of the border you are on.

Gonzalo Curiel, a U.S. prosecutor, knows first-hand about the reach of the Arellanos. In the 1990s, he was the target of an assassination plan after he sought the extradition of two cartel members. Curiel was put under U.S. Marshal protection.

"In my view, something did change," Curiel said. "The worst case scenario would have been the Arellanos would have not only have maintained their grip but, would have even become more powerful. So that they would have been incapable of being toppled."

"This was a huge deal to many people," he added. "I think a lot of people in Mexico had lost confidence in the ability of their government, their institutions to make a difference when it came to this violent and ruthless organization."

Other officials also consider it a big deal, as represented by the border crossing wanted/captured posters designed to send a message to every successful drug courier.

"That's our statement to them that they're not invincible, and that we will continue to work and investigate and target the members of that organization until that organization is completely dismantled," Hook said.

But when authorities do catch them, there probably will be others who will step right up to the plate to take their place — especially with a $65-billion-a-year U.S. drug market still open for business.

"That's true," Hook said. "That's true."