A look inside a giant drug cartel

A bicontinental investigation is leading to arrests and searches for

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.

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.

Santiago has never drawn attention as a hotbed of drug trafficking or of drug-money laundering. But when President Clinton traveled there for the Summit of the Americas in April 1998, local journalists joked about how the US delegation was staying in what they called a "narcohotel," a glitzy new property that according to some muckraking media investigations had been built with drug money.

Disappearing act

In what may have been one of the final steps in his plan to disappear from Mexico and carry on his business elsewhere, Carrillo Fuentes went under a plastic surgeon's knife in Mexico City in July 1997 in an attempt to alter his physical appearance. Exactly why he died during the operation is not clear - in fact some people believe the death was staged and that Carrillo Fuentes is still running cocaine. The story of what really happened may never be known. The two doctors who performed the unsuccessful surgery were later found dead along a highway, stuffed in oil drums.

Carrillo Fuentes's death set off a wave of violence focused in Jurez as lieutenants battled to assume the throne or other drug thugs tried to move in. Several leaders were killed, while other high-ranking operatives were arrested.

Last month the man considered to be one of the cartel's top money launderers was arrested in the US Embassy in Mexico City as he tried to obtain a visa using false documents.

It was also a former hitman for Carrillo Fuentes - a onetime judicial police commander in Jurez whom Mexican officials say moonlighted for $5,000 a month as a cartel bodyguard - who helped lead Mexican justice officials to the Jurez graves.

Mario Silva Calderon was called "The Animal" by fellow cartel minions for his ruthlessness.

The nickname rose from the way he finished off suspected turncoats or the poor country boys who worked as "mules" taking drugs across the border but ended up knowing too much.

Under arrest in Mexico and seeking a lighter sentence, Mr. Silva apparently started talking about the graves. But even with its deaths and arrests, no one thinks the Jurez cartel is anywhere near undone.

'El Metro' takes over

Another Carrillo Fuentes bodyguard and former judicial police commander, Alcides Ramn Magaa, has moved the operations eastward along the Gulf coast and into the Yucatn Peninsula.

The man nicknamed "El Metro" had quick success in Quintana Roo state, home of Cancun, a favorite US vacationing spot. In very little time El Metro took what had been Colombian traffickers' territory and made it his own, US investigators say. In the process he brought the state's former governor, Mario Villanueva, into his fold.

Mr. Villanueva disappeared a few days before leaving office in April and hasn't been seen since. As one US investigator said, the Jurez cartel turned Quintana Roo into a narcostate, and its highest elected official into a narcogovernor.

The Interpol-Mexico investigation detected at least $25 million that was sent from Mexico to banks in New York and Los Angeles, before being wired on to Argentina and the Cayman Islands. The US end of the cartel's laundering scheme involved Citibank, which is already under investigation in the US for its role in the holding and transferring of millions of dollars for Raul Salinas de Gortari, brother of former Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

Raul Salinas is in prison for planning the murder of a political rival.

According to Interpol's Mr. Ponce, the investigation revealed that the Jurez cartel's Argentina laundering operations depended on a network of Argentine businessmen and public officials, including at least two high-level government officials from the 1980s.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.