Mexican drug lords answer mainly to each other Massacre of 18 in family troubles authorities on U.S. side of border

September 20, 1998|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

SANTA ANA, Calif. -- The firing squad-like execution of 18 men, women and children Thursday in Ensenada set a benchmark for Mexican drug violence, pushing the cartels closer to their ruthless Colombian counterparts, say drug enforcement experts.

"It is open season now, because they have crossed the line. No one is protected anymore," said Phil Jordan, former director of the El Paso Intelligence Center, a national anti-drug facility. "You can't get any more ruthless than killing babies."

The slayings also raised concerns about violence possibly spilling into the United States.

"The drug-related violence does not have any borders," Jordan said. "Let's say a target escapes to Santa Ana [Calif.] and they send their hit man after him."

Authorities in Orange County, Calif., which includes Santa Ana, said they are keeping a close eye on Mexico's drug violence.

"Law enforcement on the American side of the border is most interested in finding out the reasons [for the massacre] and whether it can affect us," said Orange County sheriff's Lt. Hector Rivera.

Added Santa Ana Police Chief Paul Walters: "Every time something happens, we pay close attention. We've been fortunate, but we are always on alert."

Eight children were among the Ensenada victims marched from their beds and lined against a concrete wall. One dead woman clung to her diapered baby.

"Why would you kill the children? That's not Mexico," said Travis Kuykendall, retired agent in charge of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency office in El Paso, Texas.

"You've got a group that has developed the financial [power] that they don't have to worry about the government anymore. [But] money will only do so much; fear will do a lot more."

Authorities are investigating whether the shootings are linked to Tijuana drug lords known as the Arellano Felix brothers. Jordan said the massacre could be linked to a drug war involving the brothers and traffickers sseking control of the Ciudad Juarez cartel.

The killings came a week to the day after the body of a Ciudad Juarez drug kingpin was found slumped dead in his Jeep.

Although Mexico has been a heroin and marijuana supplier for more than four decades, its role in the drug world has changed.

In the early 1980s, Mexican smugglers began transporting Colombian cocaine into the southwestern United States. The Colombians paid the Mexicans up to $2,000 per smuggled kilogram of cocaine.

Within the past 10 years, the Colombians started paying Mexican traffickers with a percentage of the coke, according to a State Department report. The arrangement allowed Mexican traffickers to funnel their own cocaine into the United States.

Now more than 60 percent of cocaine seized in the United States has passed through Mexico.

Although Mexican traffickers are increasingly selling dope at home, most of their drugs are destined for the north.

"Mexico now rivals Colombia as the center of the Western Hemisphere drug trade," said the International Narcotics Control Strategy Report.

"Mexican drug syndicates have divided up the territory with the Colombian organizations, gradually assuming responsibility for the wholesale distribution of most of the cocaine moving to the United States."

It is Mexico's status as a big-time player in drug distribution that makes it such a dangerous neighbor.

"We're 100 miles from [the border]; we have a tremendous amount of consumers here; we better be paying attention," said Santa Ana police Lt. Bob Sayne.

With their rise in prominence, Mexico's drug lords have become flamboyantly violent.

Mexico's No. 1 cocaine trafficker, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, was killed July 4, 1997, by his own plastic surgeons -- reportedly while trying to change his identity.

The plastic surgeons later disappeared, and the body of one was found stuffed into an oil drum.

Rafael Munoz Talavera, the man believed to be stepping into Carrillo's shoes, was found shot and bound in his 1985 Jeep vTC Cherokee last week.

While some drug lords have been nailed by Mexican anti-drug efforts, they seem mostly accountable only to each other.

"They are basically untouchable," Jordan said. "Their networks are staggering. The money paid to law enforcement and politicians is in the multimillions." The Arellano Felix organization pays an estimated $1 million a week in bribes, he said.

"They'll make you an offer you can't refuse. Lead or silver?" he said. "[Most] guys take the silver."

Pub Date: 9/20/98

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