US, Mexico laud 'new era' in antidrug war

The death and arrest of two drug cartel leaders breaks up ring.

When President George Bush heads to Mexico this week to attend a UN conference with Mexico's President Vicente Fox, they'll have a major law enforcement achievement to celebrate.

Late last week, Mexican authorities confirmed that the man gunned down during a Feb.10 police shootout in the western city of Mazatlan was Ramon Arellano Félix, the notoriously brutal enforcer of a Tijuana drug cartel he ran with his brother Benjamín. For years, a grainy photo of Ramon had appeared next to Osama bin Laden's on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list.

A month after Mr. Arellano Félix's shooting came the second coup for Mexico's antidrug forces: Benjamín Arellano Félix, believed to be the mastermind of the Tijuana drug gang, was captured in Puebla, east of Mexico City, while reportedly praying over a shrine to his fallen brother.

The death of one sibling and the capture of the another, along with the arrests of several other key players in the Arellano Felix organization, have authorities on both sides of the border rejoicing over the demise of one of the world's bloodiest and most powerful drug cartels. The cartel was estimated to have smuggled as much as one-third of the marijuana and cocaine that entered the US market.

US officials are heralding the fall of the Tijuana cartel as a first major victory in a new era of cooperation between US and Mexican antidrug forces.

"Clearly, we think this is terrific," says one senior US official, adding that officials in Washington were highly impressed by the improved antidrug efforts in Mexico since Mr. Fox took power in late 2000. "You keep hearing the word 'unprecedented' here when people are talking about [Fox] and his administration."

That's good news for Fox, who has seen his domestic popularity wane since he toppled 71-years of single-party rule on a promise to bring clean government and fight endemic crime.

Antidrug officials said it was unlikely the Arellano Félix gang could survive the blow, since the two brothers were essentially the glue that held the cartel together.

"And I have never seen a more ruthless bunch of people," says Donald Thornhill Jr., an official with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in San Diego who has worked on the Arellano Félix task force for years. "They were cold-blooded thugs."

Ramon Arellano Félix had been personally linked to more than 100 murders, Mr. Thornhill says, and it was estimated the gang paid more than $75 million annually in bribes on both sides of the US-Mexico border.

Many here are hoping continued success on the antidrug front could mean further US government funds to fight organized crime in Mexico. They also hope for an end to the annual and much-resented process of certification, in which Washington blacklists or rewards foreign governments depending on Washington's assessment of their efforts to stop the flow of narcotics.

Analysts agree, however, that it is too soon for Mexico to relax enforcement. By all estimates, the narcotics trade dwarfs all of Mexico's other major industries, including tourism, petroleum, and manufacture-for-export.

Another problem is the evidence of high-level official complicity across the trade. Last year another major trafficker, Joaquin Guzman, escaped from a high-security prison, allegedly with the help of senior prison authorities.

Even the demise of the Arellano Félix gang wasn't without embarrassment for the Fox government. It took Mexican authorities days to figure out that is was Ramon Arellano Félix who had died in Mazatlan on Feb. 10.

People posing as his relatives had already claimed his body and cremated it, which left the government without key evidence.

"The question is whether this represents a sustained effort, or was it just a one-shot victory," says James Riley of the Rand Corporation's Drug Policy Research Center. "Are there resources to sustain this level of effort? These questions can only be answered in the long term."

The demand for narcotics on the American side of the border is a key obstacle, a problem Fox has raised repeatedly with the US.

Moreover, some think there could be renewed violence as Mexico's remaining cartels battle for control over the void left by the Arellano Félixes.

"The bad news is that this won't make a dent in the flow of narcotics. Someone will fill that void," says the DEA's Thornhill.

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