Suspected Drug Lord Captured off West Coast

The U.S. has captured Mexican drug lord Francisco Javier Arellano-Felix off the California coast. He was wanted in both the U.S. and Mexico for allegedly running a violent gang known for digging tunnels to smuggle narcotics into the United States.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

A Mexican drug lord who has dodged police for years is finally in the hands of U.S. authorities. Francisco Javier Arellano Felix was a big fish, so it was only fitting that he was caught at sea while fishing with members of his gang.

As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, his capture is being called a major blow to one of the world's biggest drug cartels.

CARRIE KAHN reporting:

Javier Arellano goes by the nickname El Tigrillo, the little tiger cat. But at a Washington press conference, DEA Chief Mike Braun said Arellano is anything but little.

Mr. MIKE BRAUN (Chief of Operations, Drug Enforcement Agency): This guy happens to be one of the 45 most notorious, most wanted drug traffickers in the world. So this is not your average arrest and Javier is not your average drug trafficker.

KAHN: He's one of seven brothers and four sisters who comprise the Arellano Felix crime family. Acting on a tip, DEA agents with help from the U.S. Coast Guard arrested the kingpin while he was deep sea fishing on a private boat off the coast of Baja California. Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty says Arellano faces charges in San Diego for his involvement in dozens of murders and running a drug ring that dominates cocaine trafficking along the Pacific Coast.

Mr. PAUL MCNULTY (Deputy Attorney General): The indictment also alleges that the Arellano Felix organization recruited, trained, and armed groups of bodyguards and assassins responsible for protecting the leaders of the organization.

KAHN: McNulty says Arellano's ruthless assassins killed rival gang members and scores of Mexican law enforcement officials. In 1993, the cartel was implicated in the assassination of Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo of Guadalajara. Tijuana journalist Jesus Blancornelas survived an attack by Arellano assassins in 1997, but two of his partners were murdered by the cartel. One of the suspected killers was arrested on the boat along with Arellano. Blancornelas said he's waiting for more details before celebrating the arrests.

Mr. JESUS BLANCORNELAS (Journalist): (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: Blancornelas says there are other Arellano brothers on the loose that are more important that Javier, who he describes as a playboy and not a hitman. He says Arellano became the cartel's leader more by default than by design after one older brother was arrested and another was killed in a shootout. Many say the Arellano gang's influence is now on the decline but the cartel still pushes tons of drugs across and even under the U.S.-Mexico border.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

Just last January, U.S. Customs Agent Frank Marwood showed off one of the Arellano's trademarks, an elaborate cross-border tunnel.

Agent FRANK MARWOOD (Department of Customs and Border Protection): Watch your head as you go.

KAHN: Well lit, well ventilated, and one mile long, connecting San Diego and Tijuana.

Mr. MARWOOD: It's the longest tunnel that we've encountered. The amount of tubing that it took for the ventilation, the amount of electrical cording that it took to completely electrify this, is absolutely incredible.

KAHN: U.S. authorities didn't know how long the tunnel had been operating, but they did confiscate two tons of marijuana there. Yesterday, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty called Arellano's arrest a crippling blow.

Mr. MCNULTY: That's not to say that there may not be one or more members within the organization that are capable of stepping up and taking over and running operations. That's, you know, yet to be seen.

KAHN: But McNulty said the cartel is extremely vulnerable now, and, given this opportunity, authorities plan to keep piling it on.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

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