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A look inside a giant drug cartel

A bicontinental investigation is leading to arrests and searches for

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 6, 1999



MEXICO CITY

The disappearance of a US Drug Enforcement Administration operative may have pushed officials to aggressively search for more victims of the Jurez cartel's drug wars, observers here say.

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Although US officials have not confirmed the agent is missing, the Mexican press is reporting the DEA agent - one of four officials assigned to the US Consulate in Jurez - had a car equipped with a tracking device that led investigators to a shed on one of the ranches being searched.

So far, 65 FBI forensics experts and 600 Mexican policemen have exhumed six bodies from the sandy soil of four Jurez ranches connected with the Jurez cartel. This week-old search, plus another investigation in Buenos Aires into a Jurez cartel money-laundering "cell," are providing a new glimpse inside the cartel's operations.

The Jurez cartel, responsible for some 50 percent of illegal drugs that pass through Mexico to the US, rose in the past decade to become one of the hemisphere's - if not the world's - most powerful crime organizations Some US sources estimate the cartel's income reached as high as $200 million a week. That mind-boggling sum was not only key to the organization's rise, but also an element in its undoing after its mastermind, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, died in July 1997.

The geographic spread of investigation sites - from Los Angeles and El Paso, Texas; to Ciudad Jurez, Mexico; Mexico City; Buenos Aires; and Santiago, Chile - is a measure of the reach of a drug-trafficking gang once powerful enough to count on its payroll Mexico's equivalent of US drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey.

On Thursday the director-general of Interpol-Mexico, Juan Miguel Ponce Edmonson, announced that a two-year investigation into the cartel has resulted in the shutting down of its Buenos Aires money-laundering "cell." Several Argentine and Italian citizens suspected of involvement have been barred from leaving Argentina, while their properties and cash were seized.

The Buenos Aires laundering operation was designed to provide more hiding places for the mountains of cash the Jurez organization was taking in.

The cartel's roots

The Jurez cartel has its antecedents in the 1980s, but bloomed under the direction of Carrillo Fuentes in the 1990s. Benefiting from the cocaine boom of the '80s and taking advantage of the crackdown on the Colombian cartels, Carrillo Fuentes began building his operation.

His big breakthrough, US sources say, came with his decision to take merchandise - cocaine - instead of cash for his work with the Colombians. That allowed him to develop his own distribution system from the point of origin to the point of sale.

But Carrillo Fuentes's stroke of genius - the one that earned him the nickname Lord of the Skies - was his idea of creating a kind of sky train of large jets. Putting aside the small boats and prop planes of his predecessors, he ferried tons of white powder from Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia, to Mexican airfields and on to American streets.

Like a Henry Ford, a Sam Walton, or a Bill Gates, it was brilliant business thinking that made Carrillo Fuentes a legend. But Carrillo Fuentes' success also ultimately led to his downfall.

Feeling intensifying pressure from US and some Mexican authorities, the Lord of the Skies in 1996 apparently decided to shift his base of operations to the southern cone of South America. He considered Chile, according to Mexican investigators, and began setting up a number of operations there. He also worked in Argentina and visited Brazil, Uruguay, and Cuba.