October 20, 1996 Sunday
Copyright 1996 The San Diego Union-Tribune
Section: OPINION; Pg. G-1
Length: 2249 words
Byline: Ana Arana, ARANA covered Central America, Colombia and Venezuela for the Miami Herald, U.S. News and World Report and the Baltimore Sun from 1987 to 1993. Since then, she has done independent investigative reporting and directed the Americas program for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. This article, the product of a three-month investigation, includes reporting by Norman Navarro of El Imparcial in Hermosillo, Mexico and a team from El Tiempo in Bogota, Colombia.
Dateline: EL PASO
EL PASO -- Surprised U.S. officials didn't find a stash of drugs in the Honda Accord abandoned at El Paso's Bridge of The Americas, a major drug smuggling entry point.
Instead, a gruesome bundle was hidden in the trunk -- the slashed bodies of Jose Refugio Rubalcava, a former Juarez police chief, and his two older sons.
The chief's body showed signs of torture.
A yellow bow was tied around his mouth -- a macabre message from Amado Carrillo Fuentes to turncoats, police said. A known U.S. informant, Rubalcava reportedly was gathering information for an indictment against Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the Juarez drug lord, known for his viciousness and shrewdness.
Rubalcava's two grown sons were unfortunate enough to be helping their father in this investigation. "It was a hideous message," said Carlos Diaz de Leon, El Paso's representative for the Mexican Attorney General's office.
"But he was very useful to U.S. officials, thus the gift-wrap." Rubalcava and his two sons were victims of the escalating violence linked directly to drug trafficking along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Authorities on both sides expect more of the same, and not just along the Texas portion of the 1,800-mile border. In Tijuana, barely more than a 20-minute drive from downtown San Diego, the Felix-Arellano cartel is locked in a head-on confrontation with Mexican authorities.
Increasingly bold and ruthless, the Arellano operation is believed responsible for the recent assassinations of two Mexican government prosecutors assigned to Tijuana specifically to break its drug trafficking network. The conviction last week of former drug kingpin Juan Garcia-Abrego, who until early this year headed the Gulf cartel, will have no impact on future Mexican drug shipments.
By all accounts, Abrego was not a powerful trafficker by the time of his arrest.
His lieutenants already have joined ranks with Amado Carrillo Fuentes of the Juarez cartel, who is rapidly moving into that territory. The Juarez cartel has become Mexico's most powerful drug trafficking group. Carrillo Fuentes has always held an important position in the Mexican Federation, the loosely organized group that represents all Mexican traffickers.
He had the best contacts with the Colombian drug cartels and had always served as dealmaker among the trafficking families.
He also crafted a delicate web of corruption that protects him to this date. In a three-month investigation of recent violence in Juarez and adjoining border cities, it has become evident that Carrillo Fuentes is in a massive power takeover which has left behind a trail of bodies as he has changed the rules of the game.
Last year, for instance, he took advantage of legal problems faced by Colombian drug cartels at home, and murdered a top Colombian trafficker.
The killing sent a chilling message that he was determined to put an end to Colombian control of the Mexico drug business. Subsequently, Carrillo Fuentes has reinforced his direct contacts with cocaine producers in Peru and Bolivia, and has his eyes set on becoming the top trafficker in the hemisphere -- the Pablo Escobar of Mexico.
If Carrillo Fuentes continues unchecked, it portends more violence for the entire U.S.-Mexico border and serious repercussions for the border states of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. His rise has caught many U.S. officials by surprise, as U.S. anti-drug efforts are still directed in a state-by-state manner, and not necessarily in a smoothly coordinated way. Carrillo Fuentes has seriously damaged U.S. anti-drug efforts in the Texas area by targeting U.S. informants of the caliber of Rubalcava, which take years to cultivate.
And he's apparently behind attacks against U.S. personnel and their relatives, which he has shrewdly masked as common crimes to avoid retaliation from U.S. authorities. One such attack was conducted by his underlings who attempted to murder a U.S. agent in a border city.
The agent had identified the cartel's shipping routes, which cost the Carrillo Fuentes organization millions of dollars in lost cocaine revenue.
After the murder attempt, the agent was quickly relocated to an inland post for his own safety. The 1995 murder of the brother of a high-ranking DEA official (who has since retired) was belatedly tied to the drug kingpin.
Likewise, the 1994 disappearance and presumed murder of a U.S. telecommunications expert who apparently was a low-level freelance operative gathering intelligence information in Jaurez for an unidentified U.S. agency. These two incidents are just part of the escalating border violence in Juarez, where 600 people have been killed in the last two years. The violence is an indication of the drug kingpin's heightened sense of bravura, drug experts say. "Amado is becoming richer and more violent.
The drug gangs are doing business at a higher level and they are striking at their competitors and at the United States," said Don Ferrarone, special agent in charge of the DEA's office in Houston.
"We've warned Washington." At the July Southwest Drug Summit in El Paso, U.S. officials announced tighter policies to curtail drug trafficking.
But critics, including retired drug enforcement officials, say efforts do not match the message. "Many of the problems we have now arose because we couldn't get Washington interested," said a retired DEA agent, who held a top position in Mexico a few years ago.
For a time, agents complained, Washington only cared about getting approval for the North American Trade Agreement, and ignored the resilience of Mexican drug gangs. Indeed, the border has always been a tightrope act for most U.S. officials. Far from Washington, much of the violence that occurs here is largely unreported.
But in the last two years, every law enforcement agency has registered ever higher levels of violence.
In January, a Border Patrol agent was killed in Eagle Pass, Tex. Less serious incidents were reported in New Mexico and California. But it is in Juarez, where the violence is spilling over.
El Paso police Sgt. Bill Pheil said his city's youth gangs have grown more violent because they work with the Carrillo Fuentes people. The El Paso-Juarez area is even more important than California and Arizona because it is strategically located near Chihuahua's top-rated highway system, which connects the border with southern Mexico, where many drug shipments originate.
Juarez has become as important as the Colombian cities of Cali and Medellin were to the drug trade under the Colombian hegemony. Up to 70 percent of the cocaine transported into the United States comes through Mexico and 40 percent of that amount enters through Juarez. Carrillo Fuentes' web of corruption protects him and feeds him a flow of counterintelligence information on U.S. anti-drug efforts, Juarez journalists and U.S. officials say. Privately, U.S. officials are concerned about the escalating violence. "Sure we are concerned about them attempting to hit U.S. agents," said Robert S. Gelbard, assistant secretary of state for narcotics.
"But there is no doubt in my mind that the violence will increase to the degree the Mexican government keeps up the pressure." Officials say that Mexican traffickers would not attempt to carry out attacks similar to the 1986 kidnapping and murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena.
Recent events, though, do no warrant this reassurance. Take, for example what appeared to be an apparent carjacking in January 1995. Killed was Bruno Jordan, 27, the younger brother of Phil Jordan a veteran DEA official and former head of El Paso Intelligence Center, a DEA-run outfit.
That same month Phil Jordan, 51, was taking over the position as head of EPIC. Initially, the Jordan family thought the murder was a common crime.
The killer, a 13-year-old Juarez boy, had stole the brand new Silverado truck Bruno was driving.
The boy is serving a 15-year sentence at a Texas youth facility, but in an independent investigation, the family unearthed new evidence which they say indicates the murder was ordered by Carrillo Fuentes. "This was not a hit over a truck," said Virginia Jordan, Bruno's sister. "Our brother was lured with the truck to the place where he was shot." According to the family investigation, all the young members of the car-theft ring who knew about the carjacking were killed after the Jordan murder.
The brother of the young killer was beaten and drowned in the Rio Grande after the Jordan family approached him to testify.
Phil Jordan, now working as a security specialist for the Dallas Cowboys, is convinced his brother was killed because of his work. For the family of telecommunications wizard Saul Sanchez, his disappearance in May 1994 is baffling.
The family now suspects Sanchez was gathering intelligence on drug traffickers for an unidentified U.S. agency, but has been unable to find answers for many of its questions despite a two-year search.
U.S. officials have denied that Sanchez worked for any agency. Still, family members and Sanchez' colleagues said he sold sophisticated listening devices to police and drug traffickers and had been very concerned about his safety weeks before his disappearance.
A native of Laredo, Tex., he and his Mexican wife left home to attend the theater in downtown Juarez.
They vanished, leaving behind five children. Juarez journalists theorize that Sanchez was executed on orders of Carrillo Fuentes after the U.S. technical expert learned of several drug shipments. A Navy veteran, Sanchez, 37, built telephone listening devices for clients including the Juarez police.
A large, friendly man, he had no previous brushes with the law to explain his association with known traffickers.
"He sold the devices to the traffickers on the advice of his police friends," recalled his younger brother Sam, who lives in Dallas. Peter Lupsha, a researcher who specializes on drug trafficking at the University of New Mexico, said Sanchez could have belonged to the shadowy and murky world of low-level intelligence operations.
"There are lots of guys out of the service who have skills that can be used in Mexico and get involved in rogue operations." These rogue operations avoid bilateral problems between the United States and Mexico, which, according to the rules of the game, are supposed to inform each other of any operations conducted in foreign territory. Lupsha and retired U.S. officials say these shadowy individuals are often necessary because of the rampant corruption in border cities, which compromise anti-drug efforts.
It is believed that Rubalcava and other informants killed by traffickers in the last two years, were found out when corrupt Mexican officials learned of their double indentities. The murders of informants resound in Juarez. A French art dealer bought art for drug dealers but disappeared because she had friends who were suspected informants.
A woman who was a cousin of Carrillo Fuentes was detained by U.S. authorities and talked too much; she was killed when she returned to Juarez.
A beautiful radio reporter regularly passed information on to U.S. officials after wooing corrupt police officers; she was shot on the face by a hitman who brought red roses from an admirer. And then there was Felipe Javier Lardizabal, the police investigator who found out about corrupt police officials who allowed the use of the Juarez Airport to unload drug shipments. Carrillo Fuentes was the first to demand that Colombians pay his organization with cocaine for transporting the drug to the U.S. market.
He also gained entry into Colombian cocaine markets in Chicago, Atlanta, Oklahoma and Seattle.
These were the preliminary steps which allowed the Carrillo Fuentes organization to develop independent enterprises which he now combines with amphetamine and marijuana trade. Now a multimillionaire, Carrillo Fuentes was the first to coordinate multiton cocaine shipments aboard large 727 passenger jets refitted to take cargo.
Many of these shipments were flown directly into the Juarez Airport, where they were guarded by Mexican federal police. He also strengthened relations with Peruvian traffickers who have taken up residence in Mexico, and has recruited Bolivians to work directly under his organization.
In May, he lost his top Bolivian lieutenant, Jose Pereira Salas, who was intercepted by Mexican authories as he returned to Mexico from ameeting in Bogota and was turned over to the DEA. Carrillo Fuentes dreams of overstepping the Colombians in the cocaine production.
The drug lord is testing several shipping routes to bring cocaine directly to Mexico, but U.S. officials said he is having logistical problems. With the 1995 murder of Alberto Ochoa Soto, a top Colombian trafficker, Carrillo Fuentes closed a chapter in Mexico's drug trafficking annals. Ochoa Soto, 51, was his friend and colleague for more than ten years.
A member of the Ochoa clan from Medellin, Colombia, Ochoa Soto broke the rules and taught Carrillo Fuentes a number of tricks of the trade, which allowed him to advance quicker and reinforce his earlier relations with the Colombian drug cartels. In Medellin, Ochoa's nephews, the once-powerful Ochoa brothers, are apparently fuming at Carrillo Fuentes' sleight-of-hand.
"We are men of peace," Jorge Ochoa, the eldest, told a reporter, "We won't seek revenge." But in reality, the Colombians know that Carrillo Fuentes got them at their worst time, when most Colombian cartels are cutting deals with the Colombian government and can't devote as much of their attention to Amado Carrillo Fuentes.
1 DRAWING; PHOTOBY: SUZANNE DIXON MALLORY