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Dark History: Mexico’s Drug Cartels, Part 1

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The Mexican government, appalled at the atrocities committed by the cartels during the late 1980s, began an investigation of the Mexican Cartels. The investigation revealed what was common knowledge: The police were corrupt. It was like cancer, spreading everywhere. Pressured by the DEA, the Mexican government decided to clean house. The Mexican army arrested Guadalajara Cartel drug lord Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo in 1989. Then they interrogated 300 members of the Culiacan police force. Seven officers were indicted for accepting bribes, while almost one-third of the rank and file police officers quit after being questioned.

Mexico would not extradite criminals to any nation where they could face the death penalty. Therefore, Gallardo was tried in a Mexican court. Sentenced to 40 years in prison, Gallardo continued to run his empire from behind bars, where he was allowed to use a cell phone. Still, because Gallardo was essentially out of the loop, his organization sank into the quicksand of rivalries and greed. Avaricious for money and territory, the Mexican Cartels eyed each other with suspicion and jealousy.

The Sinaloan Cartel didn’t like the hand they had been dealt. In effect, they had only two ways to move drugs into the U.S., through Tecate and Mexicali, neither of which led to lucrative markets, like southern California or Arizona. The Sinaloans took a look around and considered their options. To the east was Sonora, but the Sonoran Cartel had lots of men and lots of guns. The other option was Tijuana, controlled by the Arellano Felix brothers, whom the Sinaloans considered easier pickings. So they went to war with the Tijuana Cartel.

cartels

Benjamin Arellano Felix ran the Tijuana Cartel. His brother, Eduardo, ran the financial side of the business, taking care of the money laundering. Ramon, a younger brother, functioned as the Tijuana Cartel’s enforcer. The oldest brother, Francisco, paid off politicians and police officers. Francisco, who was an ostentatious cross-dresser, owned five houses and a discotheque called Frankie O’s. In his heyday, Francisco was greasing palms to the tune of six million dollars per month. The Tijuana Cartel was atypical in that many of their gang members were from affluent middle-class families. They dressed in expensive, stylish clothing, spoke English, and were educated. Most of them eschewed tattoos. They transported heavy weapons into Mexico and drugs into the U.S.

The Tijuana Cartel employed a take-no-prisoners’ policy. They murdered indiscriminately. Their enforcer, brother Ramon, believed that terror kept people in line. Ramon’s favorite methods of intimidation included the Colombian Necktie, where he slit the person’s throat, and then pulled the tongue out through the slit; using plastic bags to suffocate the enemy; cutting off heads; immersing people in acid baths; and what was called “carne asada,” where people were immolated on piles of burning tires.

When the Sinaloans tried to move in on the Tijuana Cartel’s territory, they discovered the pickings weren’t as easy as they had thought. Things got bloody real fast, and the Sinaloa Cartel realized they had pulled the tail of a tiger. In an effort to escape a no-win situation, Shorty Guzman, head of the Sinaloan Cartel, called for a meeting with the Arellano Felix brothers. The two cartels met and negotiated. The Arellano Felix brothers held the winning hand and knew it. In the end, they permitted the Sinaloans to move product through Tijuana, but the Sinaloans had to pay a hefty tariff for the privilege. The brothers also insisted on total access to the Mexicali smuggling route into the U.S. The deal was set.

Only Shorty Guzman didn’t like the deal. Providing his men with Federales uniforms and automatic assault rifles, Shorty ordered them to hit a disco in Puerto Vallarta. The disco was owned and operated by a close friend of the Arellano Felixes. Shorty had reliable information that the Arellano Felix brothers would be at the disco. The Sinaloan gangsters rushed into the disco, weapons blazing. Hearing the shooting, the Arellano Felix brothers realized what was going on. Running to the nearby bathroom, the brothers used the sink as a ladder to the bathroom’s skylight. Smashing through the skylight, they climbed onto the roof of the disco. Jumping down, they fled into the night.

Shorty’s costumed men killed 19 people, eight of whom were members of the Tijuana Cartel.

Livid with anger, the Arellano Felix brothers plotted their revenge. In May 1993, they put their plan into action. Learning that Shorty Guzman would be in a white Mercury Grand Marquis at the Guadalajara International Airport, Ramon sent hit men from the Tijuana Cartel to kill Guzman. The hit men set up an ambush for the car. When it arrived, the hit men deluged the car with bullets from automatic weapons. The two men in the car died on the spot, along with five other travelers who had the bad luck to be in the field of fire.

Shorty Guzman was not in the car. The man the hit men thought was Shorty Guzman was none other than a Cardinal in the Catholic Church, Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo. Since most Mexicans were Catholics, the people of Mexico were shocked and horrified by the murder. As details of the tragedy emerged, it was the first time many Mexicans heard the term “drug cartels.” The news media ran feature stories on the cartels, along with stories about the Arellano Felix brothers and Shorty Guzman. The fact that these cartels could ruthlessly murder a Cardinal of the Catholic Church spoke volumes about their power and lack of morality. Indignant at the government’s seeming impotence, the people of Mexico demanded justice.

The government responded by arresting the cross-dressing Francisco Rafael Arellano Felix, who was charged with illegal possession of a weapon and accessory to murder. Francisco didn’t have to remain in jail very long. For the Tijuana Cartel bribed anyone and everyone they could, doling out ten million dollars in hush money to lubricate Francisco’s release, while simultaneously handing over two of their hit men. The hit men would go to prison, not Francisco.

Two weeks after the Cardinal’s murder, the Guatemalan police arrested Shorty Guzman, who was hiding out in Guatemala until the heat died down. Shorty was summarily deported back to Mexico, where he was tossed into prison.

Continued in Part 2.

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About Christopher Zoukis

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Education Behind Bars (Sunbury Press, 2012), the Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2014), and the forthcoming College for Convicts (McFarland and Company, 2015) and United Blood Nation: The Story of the East Coast Bloods (Headpress, 2015). He can be found online at Prisoneducation.com, Prisonlawblog.com, and christopherzoukis.com.