Mexican Drug Lord Faces Charges In San Diego
RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
Later this morning, the man who led one of Mexico's most feared drug cartels will be in a federal court just across the border in California. Mexico extradited the drug lord earlier this month. He faces charges including money laundering, murder and trafficking hundreds of tons of cocaine from Tijuana to the United States. From San Diego, Amy Isackson reports.
AMY ISACKSON: The crimes of Benjamin Arellano are like a gory catalog of murder and mayhem. After years of legal wrangling, he's facing justice in the United States.
JOHN KIRBY: I'm still shocked that he's here at all.
ISACKSON: John Kirby is a former federal prosecutor who helped indict Benjamin.
KIRBY: Benjamin Arellano had connections throughout the upper reaches of Mexico, in the government and the clergy and the military. And I am shocked that they've allowed him to come here.
ISACKSON: To understand how important Benjamin is, you have to go back to Tijuana in the 1980s. Then he was larger than life. It's said that he dined at Tijuana's finest restaurants and had his own tables at the hottest discos.
Victor Clark has studied drug trafficking in Tijuana for more than two decades.
VICTOR CLARK: (Through translator) There are waiters who tell us that they built their houses with the tips the Arellanos left over the years.
ISACKSON: Benjamin and his brother Ramon started out smuggling cigarettes and blue jeans from the United States to Mexico. Their uncle was one of Mexico's most powerful drug traffickers. When that uncle was arrested, he divided up his business. The Arellanos inherited Tijuana.
Benjamin was the cartel's brain. He bought off businessmen, politicians and law enforcement officials. Ramon was the brawn. Clark says, together, they tortured and killed hundreds of people to control their turf.
CLARK: (Through translator) People murdered and tossed in the street. We've never seen that before at the border. Bodies wrapped in blankets, new ways of killing people.
ISACKSON: At its peak, U.S. government officials say the cartel supplied 40 percent of cocaine in the U.S., but a turning point came in 1993. That's when the cardinal in Guadalajara was murdered. The authorities pinned it on the Arellanos. That curdled public opinion. Benjamin and Ramon went underground, but their business continued.
Then a huge break in the case came when Ramon was killed in a shootout in the resort town, Mazatlan, in 2002. John Kirby, the former assistant U.S. attorney, says after that witnesses suddenly began to cooperate, whereas prior...
KIRBY: They thought Ramon would find out and kill their family.
ISACKSON: A month later, Mexico arrested Benjamin.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LOS TUCANES: (Singing in Spanish language)
ISACKSON: This song by Los Tucanes de Tijuana memorializes that capture. It describes how authorities descended on Benjamin's house American style.
U.S. and Mexican government officials hail Benjamin's extradition as an example of their joint attack on drug cartels. David Shirk directs the Transborder Institute at the University of San Diego. He says it took a lot of hard work and diplomacy to get Benjamin on U.S. soil.
DAVID SHIRK: It is an important symbolic development and it is an important, potentially, intelligence advantage for U.S. law enforcement. But, it's not a game changer.
ISACKSON: That's because the Arellano gang still has a hold on drug smuggling in Tijuana, just under new leaders. But, today, its one time leader, Benjamin, will be shackled in a San Diego courtroom to face justice.
For NPR news, I'm Amy Isackson in San Diego.
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