U.S. Cheers a Drug Kingpin's Arrest

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"This is an arrest that no one had thought was possible," U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration czar Asa Hutchinson exulted when he got word of the capture of Tijuana Cartel kingpin Benjamin Arellano-Felix. "No one has come close to the power, violence and dominance that family has had in the last decade and a half."

Arellano-Felix, generally thought to be the world's most powerful drug lord, was finally brought down by a Mexican military special operations unit, which surrounded him at about 1am Saturday outside a residence in Puebla, about 30 miles from Mexico City, and took him into custody without a shot. Also arrested was a henchman, Manuel Martinez. Inside the house, Hutchinson said, the Mexican authorities found a shrine with burning candles and a snapshot of Benjamin's younger brother Ramon, one of the FBI's ten most-wanted fugitives, whose enthusiasm for torture and mass murder did much to consolidate the family's hold over the lucrative Tijuana smuggling corridor. Arellano-Felix confirmed to the Mexican military officers that Ramon, had died in a shoot-out with authorities in Mazatlan on Feb. 10. The body was cremated but Hutchinson said today the DEA still hoped to use DNA evidence to confirm that the remains were indeed Ramon's.

The arrest was made by a military unit vetted for honesty and supplied with training and intelligence by the U.S. The CIA has been supplying the Mexican special operations forces with intercepted communications of the drug traffickers and other timely data, but it was not immediately clear whether the intelligence that led to the house in Puebla came from the U.S. or had been developed by the Mexican authorities themselves.

Hutchinson would say only that the lead was a product of good law enforcement by the Mexicans, and that "it was the government of Mexico that followed up on the lead and made the arrest." The arrest comes at the best possible moment for the often rocky relations between the neighboring nations. President Bush is due to visit his Mexican counterpart on March 20. Laying groundwork for that visit, Hutchinson went to Mexico two weeks ago to meet with Attorney General Macedo and other top officials. There, he says, he reemphasize that the Bush administration placed top priority on the capture of Benjamin and Ramon Arellano Felix, who are indicted for drug trafficking in San Diego and who are believed to be the leading suppliers of cocaine to the U.S. market.

Hutchinson wants Arellano-Felix extradited to the U.S. to face trial. He acknowledges that the government of President Vicente Fox can't achieve this quickly, as the case must pass through Mexican judicial system, which has been loathe to extradite Mexican nationals. But, he adds, "I know of no extraordinary hurdle" that would stand in the way of eventual extradition. The Mexican government might actually wish to rid itself of Benjamin Arellano-Felix, who has commanded a sizable private army of heavily armed loyalists. At present, says Hutchinson, he is being held in a Mexican military compound rather than a civilian prison because of security concerns.

With the demise of the two most potent of the Arellano-Felix brothers, the rich Tijuana "plaza," as the drug smuggling corridor is known, is up for grabs, and there will almost surely be a gang war for control, "I'm sure there will be different groups trying to step up to the plate trying to take over this area," says Hutchinson, "but this gives a window of opportunity for the law to reclaim this territory."