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On a sunny Sunday afternoon in February 2002, Ramón Arellano Félix — the No. 2 man in the Arellano Félix drug cartel — was shot dead.
Photographs show his corpse sprawled outside a pharmacy in the Pacific coast city of Mazatlán. A semiautomatic pistol lies a few feet away, with the numeral 2 painted in red on the handle. Nearby is the body of the cop who shot him.
Ramón Arellano’s death and the shocking events that followed that year would eventually lead to the collapse of one of the world’s most feared drug cartels.
But that kingpin theory? The idea that drug trafficking and violence would end once the cartel’s leaders were gone?
It turned out to be wrong.
Instead, the violence in Tijuana was about to escalate.
Targeting the cartels
There are two stories about how Ramón Arellano was killed.
One has him traveling to Mazatlán to kill a rival in the Sinaloa cartel. He and his men turn the wrong way down a one-way street. Some cops try to pull them over for a routine traffic stop. And the shooting begins.
The other story has the officers working for the Sinaloa cartel.
In that story, Ramón’s death is a hit, not a twist of fate.
We’ll probably never know what really happened that day. Like so many crimes involving the underworld of drug traffickers, there’s no tidy public resolution.
But the next blow to the cartel — the hit from which it didn’t recover — is well documented.
A month after Ramón’s death, Mexican soldiers surrounded a two-story house in a quiet cul-de-sac in the central city of Puebla. Ramón’s older brother, Benjamín — the cartel’s CEO — was there visiting his family.
Sometime after midnight, 15 men in combat fatigues burst through the door.
They found Benjamín in bed with his wife. She pulled a gun. He persuaded her to put it down.
The man who founded the cartel and oversaw its operations for so many years surrendered without a struggle.
Plata o plomo
Sometimes it seemed like I was reporting from two cities.
The Tijuana where I spent so much of my free time — where people raised families, celebrated holidays and dreamed of a brighter future. And the Tijuana where the bloody rivalries of drug traffickers spilled onto city streets, where shifts of power in the hidden underworld pierced the surface in unexpected and often shocking ways.
It wasn’t always apparent, but in the mid-2000s danger hovered over Baja California like a dark cloud.
Antonio Martinez Luna was the state attorney general at the time. He routinely received death threats.
“Every day, every day, every day,” he said.
At one point, Martinez Luna got a tip that 150 people were coming to kill him. He had a half-dozen bodyguards, who couldn’t possibly hold off such a large group.
So he created a hideout in his office.
“The rooftop or the top of the ceiling of my room had those boards, those squares, and I got a ladder,” he said.
He removed two squares in a closet ceiling and figured out how to climb in, pull the ladder up after him and replace the ceiling squares.
“So I slept there for three nights until we were able to determine if it was true or not. I had to assume it was true.”
With his two older brothers out of the picture, the youngest Arellano brother, Francisco Javier Arellano Félix, was now leading the cartel. He was called El Tigrillo — the jungle cat.
But the cartel’s hierarchy had weakened, and El Tigrillo was starting to lose control. Rivals from Sinaloa were jockeying for power.
The criminal underworld infiltrated every level of law enforcement. Nobody knew who to trust.
Drug traffickers paid or pressured police to share critical security information, guard drug shipments or carry out kidnappings and assassinations.
I learned a new expression: plata o plomo. Silver or lead. In other words: Take the bribe or take the bullet.
Steve Duncan, the former California law enforcement agent who served on the Arellano Task Force, understood the challenges his Mexican colleagues faced.
“It’s a different reality down there,” he said. “They’re not as well-equipped as a drug trafficker. So they can’t take them on like we take them on here in the United States. They don’t get training; (the) average education is probably sixth grade.”
He said Mexican reports and evidence were unavailable, and Mexican officers would not testify in the United States unless they were coerced or wanted revenge. They were afraid they would be killed.
“Most (Mexican) city and state cops live in the areas that they serve,” Duncan said. “The traffickers know where they live, where their kids go to school, where their wives work. And when you’re taking on 10 armored vehicles with guys totally tacked out in tactical gear, you have to pick your battles.”
Talking with Steve Duncan reminded me of a personal encounter I had with a police officer soon after I moved to Tijuana. My car had been stolen, and the soft-spoken patrolman consoled me as I wept in his car.
He talked about his family and his love for sports.
Did he, too, end up in the grips of drug traffickers?
By this time, I’d reported on the border for more than nine years, but going home still meant traveling to Washington, D.C. That’s where I went for holidays and birthdays. It was a special occasion if my family came out here.
When my brother Charles visited from Baltimore, I’d take him to Hidalgo Market to buy tamales. Charles loves to cook. We’d join the crowd of shoppers and squeeze past covered stalls filled with the foods and fragrances of traditional Mexico.
I asked him if he told people back east that he had a sister who lives in Tijuana; he said he did.
What’s the reaction?
“They look a little worried,” Charles said. “I tell them it’s great. Tijuana is fabulous. They should go.
“It’s nice to be in a foreign country that’s so close to the States. I mean, you just sort of cross the border and you’re in another world. That’s fascinating to me.”
In 2003, my 80-year-old mother flew in for a visit.
Cleo Dibble was a diplomat’s wife who had traveled all her life.
She’d taken me skiing in the Swiss Alps. Swimming in the Mediterranean. Wandering through the ruins of the ancient Greek Acropolis. Now I was showing her a place that I had come to love — a gritty Mexican border city that she never imagined visiting.
For breakfast one day, we met my reporter friend Dora Elena at La Espadaña. It’s in the upscale Rio Zone and is filled with touches of old Mexico.
Handmade corn tortillas. Cafe de la olla, flavored with brown sugar and cinnamon. Eggs bathed in spicy brown mole sauce.
My mother and my friend didn’t speak the same language. But they somehow reminded me of each other — both strong, independent women who embraced life and didn’t back down.
Dora Elena remembers that breakfast.
“She seemed like a very elegant woman, very refined,” she said.
“She seemed like a woman who was very sure of herself . . . I felt like you were very happy that she had come to visit Tijuana . . . I had the impression that you felt more protected with your mother here, like you were returning to your childhood, no?”
She laughed at the thought.
My mother and I ended that day in eastern Tijuana, off a dirt road at my friend Angela’s little house. She prepared a special treat for us: potato tacos, deep fried and served with lettuce, avocado and salsa.
My mother usually held fast to her exacting European tastes. She hadn’t tried much Mexican food, but she thought Angela’s tacos were delicious.
Food builds bridges, it seems, even across the most distant borders.
Hope turns to resolve
It had been six years since Adriana Hodoyan’s oldest brother went missing. Alex was abducted as his mother was trying to drive him to safety in San Diego. Cristina Palacios de Hodoyan had been searching for her son ever since.
Adriana said one day her mother got a call.
It was an agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. They wanted Cristina to go to San Diego for a meeting.
It had been nearly two decades since the youngest and oldest Hodoyan brothers had fallen under the grip of the Arellanos.
Alfredo was now in a Mexican prison, sentenced to 50 years for killing a federal police commander who dared to speak out against the Arellanos.
Alex hadn’t been heard from since he was dragged from his mother’s arms. The family assumed he was dead. But Cristina held onto a flicker of hope that he still might be alive.
Adriana went with her mother to the meeting in San Diego. Alexis, Alex’s daughter, went too.
“Alex was swimming with the fishes,” Adriana said, quoting a federal agent who talked to them.
Adriana said her mother couldn’t absorb the news at first.
“I guess it was probably like a month or two months later that she came to realize that he was gone,” Adriana said.
Without hope for herself, Cristina found solace in helping other families search for missing relatives. She marched alongside them as they walked silently through the streets, holding pictures of their loved ones.
She cut a dramatic figure in the crowd — a tiny chain-smoking woman with big glasses and a mane of thick gray hair. Her days as a country club matron were long gone.
I covered several of those silent marches. I remember one in particular, when hundreds of people carried sunflowers in honor of a 27-year-old television executive who had been gunned down in front of her home. It was just around the corner from the Hodoyans’ house.
Six months earlier, her brother had been shot to death — in the same spot.
A journalist is killed
On June 22, 2004, the Tijuana newsweekly Zeta was the target of another brutal crime. That’s the investigative publication whose editor — Jesús Blancornelas — was badly wounded in an attack in 1997.
This time, it happened across the street from the Big Boy Restaurant where I met friends and sources for coffee.
Lauro Ortiz was in the Zeta office that day writing a story when the call came in.
A staff member had been shot. Lauro immediately called his older brother Francisco, who was out of the Zeta office on sick leave.
Francisco didn’t answer.
Blancornelas sent a photographer and Lauro to the crime scene.
“As we get out of the car, we can see several reporters, and just with their expressions, they tell me everything,” Lauro said. “I walk a few more feet and I see the car, and my heart starts racing.
“An agent tries to stop me, but I push aside the yellow tape, and I keep walking … I walk once or twice around the car. I’m doubting, not quite understanding. But I see that it’s my brother there.”
Lauro said he immediately called Blancornelas.
“I tell him, it’s Pancho,” he said. Pancho was the nickname Lauro used for his brother.
News outlets reported that a masked gunman shot Francisco Ortiz Franco after he had buckled his two children into his car. He was shot in the chest, head and neck by .38-caliber bullets fired through the car window. His 10-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter jumped out of the back seat and ran until someone pulled them to safety.
Francisco was one of Zeta’s founders. His death hit Blancornelas especially hard.
Adela Navarro was in the office that day. She’s now the newspaper’s co-editor.
“Blancornelas wept, he broke down. He was on the verge of closing this newspaper,” she said.
“He said to me, Adela, Adelita — he called me Adelita — I want to shut it down because what do I want? What follows? That they kill you? No, no, no. I have to understand that in this country there are no conditions for the kind of journalism that we are doing.”
Francisco was the third staff member killed since Zeta was founded in 1980.
“I remember trying to find strength somewhere because we were all profoundly affected that day,” Adele said. “We told Blancornelas that we have to continue, you cannot close the newspaper, we have to push forward, for Pancho, for Hector, for Luis, for everything that has happened to us.”
Lauro believes his brother was killed because he wrote an article that angered the Arellanos.
“He was revealing how drug traffickers, people from organized crime, were using ID cards from the Attorney General’s Office,” he said. “What he did was tell of the process of when they went to get their photographs taken, where they were taken, and how much they were paid.”
Lauro warned his brother against putting his byline on the story. But Francisco shrugged him off.
“He did not realize that he was in very dangerous terrain,” Lauro said.
Adela said Francisco’s murderers have never been named, much less brought to justice.
‘Like a volcano’
Julián Leyzaola was keeping track of what was happening in Tijuana. And he didn’t like what he saw.
“It was like a volcano,” he said. “From the outside, it looked peaceful. But inside, the lava was cooking.
In 2004, Leyzaola was leading a state police force of 400 officers. He was a trim, athletic man in his mid-40s. He’d spent 25 years in the Mexican army. He retired young and started working for the state.
There was something about the way he talked. Softly, but with intensity and conviction. Like someone who expected to have his orders obeyed.
People still called him by his military title — teniente coronel — lieutenant colonel.
Leyzaola was outraged to see so many crimes going unpunished in Tijuana.
“I remember how terrible it was,” he said. “I knew how the armed groups moved, the convoys for pickups, five or six pickups . . . I would drive around at night pursuing them. But I never ran into anyone because the municipal police would advise them that I was there.
Leyzaola remembers the first threat he got from the Arellanos.
“I remember toward the end of 2004. That’s when I got my first threat from the Arellanos, about December 2004. They sent me a message that I should calm down because I was hurting interests . . . that it was not worth my interfering, that I should allow them to work, and if not, they were going to kill me.”
Leyzaola trusted very few people. He thought many of his colleagues in Baja California’s law enforcement world were corrupt. Or too scared to confront the criminals.
“It was very difficult because the Tijuana municipal police worked directly with criminal groups,” Leyzaola said. “They protected them to the extent that, when they went to kill or were going to kidnap someone, the lookouts were the police. It was terrible.”
Lost and found
I rarely got lost in Tijuana. But one autumn evening, in the midst of all this turmoil, I lost all sense of direction.
I was driving to my friend Angela’s house. She had moved again, this time to El Pipila, a poor neighborhood on the eastern outskirts of the city.
Night was falling, and the dust was so thick that I couldn’t see where I was going.
In those few moments of uncertainty, my fear gave way to something harder to define —a connection to a city that I couldn’t see — but that I felt all around me.
When I went home that night, this is what I wrote in my diary:
It is Tuesday, and I am alone in a city that is not my own. So many dreams rise here, so many hearts beat, so many lights, but all I see is dust, like a fog rising, rising lights of little houses surround me, longing rays of hope. Where am I going? I love it here and I am not sure why. The lights rise and fall, as cars drive up and down. I can’t see the faces, or even cars. Just lights and dust.
Angela’s cancer returns
For months, Angela hadn’t been feeling well. She didn’t complain much to me. But she was too tired to cross the border. She told her youngest daughter it was as though her stomach was on fire. She couldn’t keep down food.
The family took her to doctors, but she didn’t improve. I was worried.
Angela had survived uterine cancer long before I knew her. But she’d been skipping her checkups.
I asked a friend for advice. She headed a nonprofit that focused on women’s health. They sent Angela to one of the city’s top oncologists.
A few weeks later, I ran into that friend at the Cultural Center. I was getting ready to go on stage for another performance by the Tijuana Opera. This time it was Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet,” and I was a noblewoman.
Angela’s cancer had returned, my friend told me. And it had spread. There was nothing to be done.
On stage that night, I listened to Juliet sing the famed aria “Je Veux Vivre.” I want to live. The words just made me want to cry.
The next time I saw Angela we talked about her visit with the oncologist. But we never mentioned the subject of death.
Angela weakened as the days passed. I went to see her as often as I could.
A month after her diagnosis, I drove to her house to celebrate New Year’s Eve.
She had enough energy to prepare pozole, a stew made with pork, chiles and hominy. There was warm, sweet ponche — a cinnamon-scented punch with fresh and dried fruits. And there was music — joyful norteño rhythms from a popular group called Los Tucanes de Tijuana — blasting from a portable radio.
That night, Angela dropped her usual reserve and laughed as she danced with her husband. I was in awe as I watched them. She wasn’t worrying about the future or regretting the past. She was dying — but she was teaching me about living.
A few weeks later, Angela could no longer move from the bed that filled most of the bedroom she and her husband shared.
Her children, grandchildren and sisters visited constantly. I did, too.
On my last visit, I sat by her bed. I struggled to find the right words, but there was really only one thing to say. You know I love you.
She was too weak to speak.
She nodded yes.
Angela died three months into the new year. She was 50 years old. Six months younger than I was.
Angela’s daughter Angelita likes to remember a song her mother used to sing when times were tough. It was popular in the 1960s, made famous by Los Hermanos Carrion.
“’Release your sorrows to the wind,’ she would always say, ‘the wind will carry them away.’ And she would start singing and dancing. I always remember the song.”
Cartel leader captured
In August 2006, the Arellano cartel’s latest leader — El Tigrillo — was captured.
What got him was his passion for deep-sea fishing.
DEA agents had been on El Tigrillo’s trail for more than a year. Finally, they managed to put trackers on his 43-foot yacht, the Dock Holiday.
Then they waited until the boat crossed into international waters.
El Tigrillo was chasing marlin when the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted the Dock Holiday off the coast of Cabo San Lucas.
With the three most powerful Arellano brothers either dead or in prison, the cartel got a new leader, an Arellano nephew named Fernando Sanchez. The violence escalated because Fernando Sanchez had trouble controlling his deputies.
One of the rogue deputies was Teodoro Garcia Simental. Everyone just called him El Teo.
El Teo was a longtime assassin for the cartel, but he’d also begun targeting families for extortion and kidnapping.
The violence that was once limited to criminals and cops now spread to a new class of victims — middle-class and well-to-do members of Tijuana society who had no connection to organized crime.
Real estate boom
In the mid-2000s, Tijuana was growing in every direction.
In the eastern part of the city, rows of tiny tract houses took over former olive groves. Far to the west, along the scenic drive overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the landscape also changed. Housing prices had skyrocketed in the U.S., and Americans were taking cash out of their homes to acquire property on the Mexican coast. Condo towers rose almost overnight.
One crisp fall day in 2006, I passed a billboard showing the smiling face of real estate magnate Donald Trump.
Trump Ocean Baja Resort was advertised as the region’s biggest, most luxurious oceanside development. It was going to be built on a cliff with spectacular views.
Hugo Torres watched the project carefully. He owns the Rosarito Beach Hotel, just a few miles down the coast from the Trump project.
“I thought there was going to be a big competition,” Torres said, “because Trump is a well-known developer.”
The Rosarito Beach Hotel has been in Torres’ family since the 1920s. It’s just a half-hour drive from the border, and Americans have been vacationing there for generations.
Not one to be left behind, Torres built a high-rise condo tower next door to his hotel.
In late 2006, Torres attended a sales event for the Trump project held at a luxury hotel in San Diego.
Eighty percent of the condos in the first tower were snapped up that day, even though it hadn’t broken ground.
I asked him if he bought one.
“No, I certainly did not. I didn’t buy,” Torres said. “No, I just went to see how well they did because we need to compete.”
The Trump project drew international attention to the stunning Pacific coastline. Who better than a flashy New York real estate magnate to tell the world that Baja California was a savvy investment?
But an opposite trend was also taking place — far more quietly — out of the public eye.
Wealthy Mexicans were buying homes in San Diego because they no longer felt safe in Tijuana.
The violence could no longer be ignored.
The anti-crime marches grew larger.
The biggest drew tens of thousands of demonstrators. They dressed in white and marched for 16 days across the state.
Members of the state legislature called for the military to be sent to Tijuana.
The military arrives
On the second day of 2007, I took a break from covering the violence and drove to the port of San Felipe on the Sea of Cortes. It’s about four hours from Tijuana.
I was there to report on an endangered Mexican porpoise — the vaquita marina. I felt revived by the desert air and the starkly beautiful landscape.
But then I got a call from my reporter friend Dora Elena.
Mexico’s newly elected president, Felipe Calderón, had sent 3,300 soldiers and federal agents to Baja California. They called it Operación Tijuana.
It was a huge development.
I found an internet cafe and wrote a quick story. Then I headed back to the city to do more reporting.
I had seen federal operations come and go but never anything of this magnitude.
The military disarmed the entire municipal police force. Soldiers set up checkpoints throughout the city.
When Calderón visited Tijuana a couple of months later, even the most prominent guests had to pass through metal detectors to hear him speak.
I took notes from the press section.
“Either we act now, or we will lose Mexico,” Calderón said. “What’s at stake is the future of the nation.”
Back then, I didn’t have time to consider the magnitude of the moment. I was just trying to make deadline.
Next week, Chapter 6: An early-morning shootout in eastern Tijuana leaves more than a dozen people dead, and the cartels’ fight to control the city grows even more violent.
Source: This post first appeared on sandiegouniontribune.com