SAN DIEGO -- A U.S. federal judge on Monday sentenced Benjamín Arellano-Felix, the former leader of the Tijuana drug trafficking cartel, to 25 years in prison. Arellano-Felix was also ordered to forfeit $100 million in profits.
Benjamín Arellano-Felix ran the Tijuana cartel, or Arellano-Felix Organization, from the mid-1980s until his arrest in Mexico in 2002. The Arellano-Felix family controlled the flow of drugs across Mexico’s northwest border into California, considered perhaps the country's most lucrative drug trafficking territory, or plaza. The drug leader is thought to have ordered scores of murders in Baja California and elsewhere in Mexico.
He pleaded guilty and was sentenced on two charges: racketeering and conspiracy to launder money.
He’ll serve far less time in jail than many lower-ranking members of the cartel, including his brother, Francisco Javier Arellano-Felix, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2007 by the same judge who sentenced Benjamín Arellano-Felix on Monday.
However, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California, Laura Duffy, defended the sentence, saying it was "the equivalent of a life sentence" for the 58-year old cartel leader. After the 25 years Arellano-Felix will serve in a U.S. federal prison, he's expected to serve an additional 17 years in Mexico on drug-trafficking charges there.
Besides its proximity to San Diego, the Tijuana cartel has been of particular interest to Southern California law enforcement officials because the group has recruited young men from San Diego’s Barrio Logan neighborhood to serve as hit men. One of its recruits, David Barron Corona, was killed by a stray bullet while attempting to assassinate a prominent Tijuana journalist in 1997.
U.S. and Mexican law enforcement began to crack down on the cartel a decade ago, targeting its leaders.
“The idea is that that’s going to put the organization in disarray,” said Nathan Jones, who wrote his doctoral thesis on the Arellano-Felix cartel at the University of California-Irvine. He says this so-called "Kingpin Strategy" worked — sort of.
In 2008, a civil war broke out within the organization. Rival factions began battling for control over the "Tijuana plaza". This sparked the wave of gruesome murders and public displays of drug war brutality that still mar the city’s reputation.
David Shirk, from the Trans-Border Institute, said that, despite the fact that many of Mexico's original drug lords are now behind bars or dead, he doesn't see much progress in the battle against the illegal drug trade.
“I’m not sure we’ve learned very much in the prosecution of the drug war about the problem we’re trying to control "which is the use of drugs by our own citizens," Shirk said. "And exporting that problem to Colombia or Mexico or Guatemala, if that’s the next front, doesn’t seem to me to be a good use of blood or treasure.”
On a recent weekday afternoon, foot traffic was light on Tijuana's main tourist drag, Avenida Revolución. Souvenir vendors sat in folding chairs on the sidewalk outside their stores, chatting with neighbors. Only a handful of foreigners seemed to be shopping.
The city’s crime rate has dropped in recent years. But local journalists and U.S analysts say this is likely due to a pact between the still-active Tijuana cartel and the powerful Sinaloa cartel, which has moved in to fill the vacuum, not because the former’s original leaders have been taken out.
Still, tourism has barely returned to the city.
Mario Gonzalez, who sells ponchos and Mexican curios out of his store on Avenida Revolución, said maybe 20 percent of his business has come back. That’s equivalent to a small group of the hoards of tourists that used to roam the street a few decades ago.
Victor Clark-Alfaro, who heads the Binational Center for Human Rights in Tijuana, said he fears that his city’s relative peace could be broken at any moment, if whatever deal exists between the rival cartels falls apart. He likens it to a volcano.
“A volcano can be dormant for many years," Clark-Alfaro said, "or it can erupt at any moment.”
At a press conference following the hearing on Monday, U.S. Attorney Duffy said she didn't think the Arellano-Felix organization, or AFO, could regain power. But she acknowledged the drug war was far from over.
"May there be some other major cartels who are in play in Mexico and who are able to come in and take over the Tijuana and Mexicali plazas with the power the AFO once reigned over those areas? Possibly," she said.
With the support of the US government, Mexican President Felipe Calderón launched a war against the drug cartels five years ago that has led to unprecedented levels of violence. Duffy defended the strategy.
"Without question in this kind of a business, if you want peace, you have to prepare for war," she said. "And I think that that's exactly what President Calderón did and that's exactly what the United States law enforcement representatives along the southwest border have done."
While drug-related violence has shifted away from the U.S.-Mexico border region, last year was still one of the bloodiest in the country's recent history.