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Thursday, 8 June, 2000, 11:24 GMT 12:24 UK
Mexico's most feared family
FBI 'wanted' poster showing the Arellano Felix brothers
The Arellano Felix brothers: Renowned for their violence
By José Baig in Tijuana, Mexico

On the US-Mexico border an FBI 'wanted' sign displays the photos of two brothers: Ramon and Benjamin Arellano Felix.

Together they run the biggest drug-trafficking ring in Mexico and one of the most important in the world since the disappearance of the Colombian drug cartels in the mid 1990s.



The bonds that unite the Arellano siblings are stronger than money, property or business

They handle almost all the marijuana, much of the cocaine and a good part of the amphetamines bought in the USA.

But scarcely 20 years ago they were just a small group smuggling cigarettes and alcohol to and from Mexico.

The Family

The Arellano brothers grew up in the state of Sinaloa, on the Pacific coast of Mexico - home to some important smuggling and trafficking groups. When the oldest children reached university age, part of the family moved to Monterrey. Investigators say that it was there, far from parental guidance, that the brothers embarked on their "transactions".

At the beginning of the 1980s, the Arellano Felix brothers moved to Tijuana. The arrest, in 1989, of Miguel Angel Felix, an uncle who controlled the smuggling ring, and the disappearance of various drug-trafficking leaders, left the field open in Tijuana for the brothers to move from smuggling into drug trafficking.



At least two-thirds of the cocaine consumed in the US enters the country via the Mexican border

They were in close contact with some of the most powerful families in Tijuana from the start. They studied with their children, joined the same clubs and visited the same nightspots. From this group of friends emerged the first Arellano 'deputies'.

"They were all kids from good families, respectable people in Tijuana," says Jesus Blancornelas, editor of Tijuana's weekly paper Zeta, who survived an attempt on his life by the Arellano brothers.



The group's violence is legendary on both sides of the border

These groups, known as the "juniors", branched out into three main areas: some took charge of transporting the drugs, others of surveillance and a third group became involved both in transport and in the 'settling' of accounts both within the organisation and outside it.

Today almost all the "juniors" are either dead or in jail. But the family remains united. According to those who know them, the bonds that unite the Arellano siblings are stronger than money, property or business.

The violence

In Tijuana almost no one dares talk about drug trafficking or the Arellano Felix brothers. And less so, if the conversation is going to be recorded or published. The group's violence is legendary on both sides of the border.

Violence is their most effective way of keeping possible competition, the authorities and the media at bay. And those who are disloyal or pass information to other cartels or to the authorities are murdered.



They hand out about a million dollars a week in bribes to the authorities

In the last six years two municipal police chiefs in Tijuana have been killed, one for rejecting a bribe. The second was killed earlier this year, only days after President Ernesto Zedillo launched a harsh warning to drug-traffickers.

"In the past year we have had 400 murders just in Tijuana" says police spokesperson Lorenzo Garibay. "Many are linked to common crimes but in nearly every case drug-trafficking plays a part."

The business

Like any directors of a multinational, the Arellano Feliz brothers have university degrees, speak correct English with almost no accent, and belong to exclusive clubs.



One of the brothers, Ramon, tops the FBI's list of most wanted criminals

They have networks to transfer cocaine from the fields in Mexico and Colombia, to the dealers on the streets of the US. They hand out about a million dollars a week in bribes to the authorities to ensure a smooth passage at border crossings.

Their communication and interception equipment is, in many cases, more advanced than that of the Mexican authorities. The money laundering operations are carefully planned and few have been detected to date.

According to witnesses and former members of the cartel, the organisation receives $4,000-5,000 per kilo of cocaine handed over to a dealer in the USA.

It is estimated that at least two-thirds of the cocaine consumed in the US enters the country via the Mexican border.

Justice

There are seven brothers and four sisters in the Arellano Felix family. Only one of them, the leader of the organisation, Benjamín, is in prison. Another, Ramon, tops the FBI's list of most wanted criminals. Almost all the men are wanted for drug-trafficking, possession of illegal arms and money laundering.



Arrests have deprived the group of key members

But no one knows where the rest of the family is. Some are convinced they live in the US, some that they are in Mexico, or elsewhere.

The recent arrest of some of the cartel's collaborators in the US and in Mexico seems to indicate that bi-national co-operation is bearing results.

At the beginning of the year, Jesus "El Chuy" Labra the main operator of the cartel was arrested. On 6 May the Mexican army captured Ismael Higuera "El Mayel", co-ordinator of the organisation's 'heavies', who are believed to be responsible for the murders of dozens of people.

Although they still wield enormous power, the authorities believe that the Arellano Felix organisation has begun to fold in on itself. The arrests have deprived the group of key members whose positions they have not been able to fill.

Some believe that, before the end of the year, the ring will have been completely dismantled. Others are not so sure.

José Baig reports for BBC Mundo

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