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Operation Shadow Game: How the DEA broke the Tijuana Cartel

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the Arellano Félix Organization (AFO) was one of the most powerful drug trafficking cartels in Mexico; brutally controlling the drug trade in Tijuana through murder, torture, and extreme violence. On April 19, 2016 the National Law Enforcement Museum welcomed members of the Arellano Félix Organization Task Force to speak about their involvement with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)’s longest open drug cartel case. These DEA and California Department of Justice agents delved into how the DEA and local law enforcement fought to stop the Arellano Félix family and dismantle the cartel.

The AFO was led by five brothers – Benjamin, Ramon, Francisco Rafael, Francisco Javier, and Eduardo Arellano Félix – who had first worked as traffickers for Miguel Ángel “El Padrino” Félix Gallardo and the Guadalajara Cartel. For most of the 1980s, Gallardo held an almost complete monopoly on illegal drug trafficking in Mexico using his connections in Mexico’s political and law enforcement communities to build up his network.  The relative peace surrounding Gallardo’s leadership ended in 1985 when he was arrested for the murder of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camerena.

National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund President and CEO Craig W. Floyd began the evening by acknowledging both the terrible tragedy of Camerena’s death and its profound impact on DEA tactics and policy. Floyd then introduced the moderator for the panel—Dr.  Nathan Jones, an assistant professor at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, and the author of an important work on the cartels, Mexico's Illicit Drug Networks and the State Reaction.

The panel included Agent Juan Martinez, who currently serves as a Resident Agent in Charge in Tijuana and supervises the on-going investigations of drug trafficking networks in northern Mexico; Agent Alan Hargrove (retired) who was a lead agent in the investigation of the Arellano Félix Organization; Agent Manuel Castañón, a case agent for Operation United Eagles, an effort to apprehend dangerous cartel members operating or living in Mexico; and Agent Stephen Duncan from the California Department of Justice, a member of the Arellano Félix taskforce for more than 17 years.

“These gang members in 1992, probably 50-60 of them, came down to Mexico and began to work as escorts and assassins for the Arellano Félix organization,” Agent Duncan said, as he described how San Diego became a hotbed for recruiting for the Tijuana Cartel during their battle with the Sinaloa Cartel.

Agent Hargrove talked about working with  Jose “Pepe” Patino Moreno, the deputy attorney general in Mexico City who was assigned the job of investigating the Arellano Félix cartel. Patino was brutally killed in April 2000.

“Pepe Patino, another prosecutor, and a Mexican Army captain, who were along for security, were found at the bottom of a ravine off the road that connects Tecate and Mexicali,” Agent Hargrove said. The murders prompted an investigation into corruption amongst some of the Mexican law enforcement contacts who worked with DEA and other U.S. law enforcement.

Witness To History: Operation Shadow Game

Agent Castañón was in charge of the Arellano Félix hotline for tips on the organization. He described how one good tip led to the important operation titled United Eagles.“This was in 2003. Crooks always give the U.S. government a lot [more] credit than what’s really out there,” Agent Castañón joked to the audience. “They assume that we have this bank of operators just waiting for the phone calls like a telethon. In reality when you call the 1-800 number, I would answer the phone.”

“The reason we named the operation ‘United Eagles’ was because [it was] the first time we really got together with the Mexican government to unify a taskforce. We had a 50-man team in Mexico City that was brought to Camp Pendleton [in California] to train in tactical operations,” he said.

Agent Martinez spoke about the capture of Javier Arellano Félix while he was fishing on a yacht off the coast of Baja California in August 2006.

“So much of life is timing and luck,” he said as he described the difficulty in getting real-time information from their Mexican counterparts. But Martinez happened to be available to interpret an English message for a Spanish-speaking agent, thereby learning Javier Arellano Félix’s location. A U.S. Coast Guard cutter was sent in to intercept the boat that contained the drug trafficker.

The capture of Javier Arellano Félix severely weakened the Tijuana Cartel, but there are always new traffickers to take the place of the old. In closing the program, Agent Martinez said, “We protect the innocent and the good,” reminding the audience why he and his counterparts continue to put themselves in dangerous situations.