U.S. Called the Loser in War on Drugs
Published by The Washington Post – December, 2002
Copyright: The Washington Post
In Prison Interview, Alleged Kingpin Says Demand Fuels Trade ALMOLOYA DE JUAREZ, Mexico.
Benjamin Arellano Felix, the man accused of running Mexico’s most ruthless drug cartel, said the United States has already lost its war on drugs and that violent trafficking gangs will thrive as long as Americans keep buying marijuana, cocaine and heroin.
“It would stop being a business if the United States didn’t want drugs,” Arellano said Tuesday during a rare interview in the La Palma maximum security federal prison here, where Mexican authorities hope to keep him for the rest of his life.
Most Latin Americans, from presidents to taxi drivers, say that U.S. demand is responsible for the drug trade. But hearing it directly from Arellano Felix, in his first interview with U.S. reporters, provided a seldom-seen glimpse into the thinking of one of the hemisphere’s most prominent drug lords.
U.S. and Mexican officials say Arellano, 48, heads the Tijuana-based cartel bearing his family name, which has moved billions of dollars worth of Mexican and Colombian drugs into the United States while committing some of the most vicious murders ever seen in the drug underworld.
But they also acknowledge that since his arrest in March there has been no slowdown in the flow of drugs over the border. “They talk about a war against the Arellano brothers,” said Arellano, who eluded the Mexican police and military, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI for more than a decade. “They haven’t won. I’m here, and nothing has changed.
“When something is out of reach, it is more interesting to people,” Arellano said. “If drugs were like cigarettes or alcohol, there wouldn’t be a black market. It would put an end to the capos.”
Authorities say Arellano was the capo of capos, the brains behind an organization that controlled a third or more of the cocaine traffic into the United States and spent countless millions to buy protection from police, judges and generals. They said his top enforcer, his brother Ramon Arellano Felix, left a trail of hundreds of mutilated corpses.
Allegations against Arellano have been made for years in newspapers, books, political speeches and court documents in Mexico and the United States. He has been charged with numerous drug offenses. Now, telling his story, Arellano said that the accusations against his family are “all lies” made up by people who are “sick in the head.”
“If I had all the money they say I do, where is it? You should be able to see the properties and the money,” Arellano said, his face flushing with anger as he sat in a cold prison classroom wearing a beige uniform, slip-on shoes and a heavy beige coat. “I didn’t have airplanes, bodyguards and yachts.”
Authorities are not sure where Arellano’s money went, beyond some real estate investments in Tijuana. Mexican officials say it has been invested in American real estate, while their U.S. counterparts say much of it is hidden in cash in Mexico.
Arellano described himself as a “simple” housing contractor. He said he suffers from daily migraine headaches from the stress of being wrongly accused.
Arellano acknowledged that he has moved frequently in the past decade, living in Mexico City, Monterrey, Puebla and Tijuana. Law enforcement officials said his life has been marked by a complicated series of dodges, aliases and secret dealings all designed to avoid arrest, which Arellano denied.
“I’ve lived simply, not in hiding,” he said. “I wasn’t calling attention to myself, but I wasn’t running from them. I went to the movies, to restaurants just like you. If I wanted to go somewhere, I got on a plane. I’m a peaceful person. A person could not have done all they accuse me of without being caught.”
Told of Arellano’s comments, Donald J. Thornhill Jr., a DEA spokesman in San Diego, where for years there has been a joint DEA-FBI task force devoted solely to the Arellano Felix organization, said Arellano will face a mountain of evidence at his upcoming trials.
“This has been the priority case for the DEA for several years,” Thornhill said. “They brought their violence into the streets of San Diego. He is an animal. He is a cancer against humanity. They killed so many people it turns my stomach. None of this is hearsay. We have hard evidence.”
For nearly a decade, the Arellano brothers’ faces looked out from wanted posters in both countries — Ramon’s picture was next to Osama bin Laden’s on the FBI’s “most wanted” list. They were known to all by their first names, as infamous in Mexico as Al Capone was in the United States. They served as a model for Mexican drug gangs in the Hollywood film, “Traffic,” and their infamy combined with their ability to elude justice — even with $2 million U.S. government bounties on their heads — gave them an almost mystical aura here.
Arellano said his family has been conveniently demonized by the Mexican government. He said the police could have caught him at any time, but chose not to in order to “blame us for everything.” He also said that the government’s pursuit of his family was just a show to please Washington. “Mexico has to look good to the United States all the time,” Arellano said.
Arellano said he tried to clear his name after the 1993 murder of Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo, in which the Arellano Felix gang has been implicated. That high-profile assassination brought international attention to the trafficking organization. Another of Benjamin’s brothers, Francisco, was arrested soon after on drug charges and sent to La Palma, and Benjamin, Ramon and their brother Javier became fugitives.
Arellano angrily denied any involvement in the Posadas killing. He said he sent a message after the slaying to then-President Carlos Salinas, offering to turn himself in. “But that wouldn’t have been convenient for them,” he said. “They’d rather blame us for everything.”
After Arellano’s arrest in March, a judge dismissed all charges against him in the Posadas case for a lack of evidence.
To reach Arellano, visitors must pass through at least 20 sets of barred doors in La Palma, Mexico’s most secure federal prison, located about 25 miles west of Mexico City. For the interview, Arellano stood waiting alone in a small prison classroom, where posters warned of the dangers of smoking, and an English lesson on the chalkboard read: “What does Pedro look like? He’s fat.”
“Hola. Benjamin Arellano,” he said, introducing himself in a surprisingly soft voice, holding out a hand to shake. His timid demeanor, more like that of an accountant than a gangster, was hard to square with reports of DEA informants’ skulls being cracked open in a vice on his orders.
He is about 5 feet 10, trim, with a bushy black crew cut. He said he is a fitness buff who likes baseball and soccer and never smokes or drinks. His eyes are the color of black coffee, hooded by thick, dark brows. When he speaks he locks eyes with his listener for an uncommonly long time.
Arellano was mostly serious during the 2 1/2-hour interview. But he occasionally lit up with smiles, particularly when talking about how his favorite baseball team, the Anaheim Angels, won the World Series. Arellano, who recently sent a letter to the United Nations protesting the conditions of his imprisonment, said he is almost never allowed out of his cell. He said a video camera is trained on him at all times.
“They watch me when I go to the bathroom, when I bathe, when I eat, when I sleep,” he said. “There’s always a light on, like I’m a hen they’re trying to get to lay an egg.” He said his jailers also watch on video during the four-hour conjugal visits he is allowed with his wife every eight days. Conjugal visits are permitted in Mexican prisons.
Arellano said he has occasionally seen his fellow inmate and brother, Francisco, at a distance, but that guards always tell him to turn away and not make eye contact.
Arellano, who did not attend college, was articulate and well-informed during the interview, discussing the recent Moscow theater siege, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and U.S. politics. Asked who his heroes were, one name came out immediately: “Bill Clinton. He did a lot for the United States and the world.”
Arellano, whose wife and four children were born in the United States, also faces drug charges in the United States. U.S. officials said they would like to see him extradited to stand trial in San Diego, a move Arellano said he would fight because extensive publicity about him would make a fair trial impossible.
Arellano answered almost all questions directly, except for one. He was evasive about whether he thinks his brother Ramon is dead or alive. Authorities say Ramon was killed last February in a shootout in the Pacific resort city of Mazatlan. They said the body, which later disappeared under suspicious circumstances, was identified by DNA testing at the FBI lab in Washington.
“The police say he’s dead, but I don’t know,” Arellano said.
Law enforcement officials said Arellano is being coy to scare potential witnesses against him. They said Ramon was so fearsome that many people began to talk only after he was dead.
With Benjamin in jail and Ramon dead, officials said the Arellano Felix organization has been taken over by Javier and Eduardo, their lesser-known brothers. They said with the two main brothers gone, and with President Vicente Fox squeezing the drug trade with more soldiers and police officers, organized crime in Mexico is still strong but less flamboyant, like Chicago without Capone.