Blood Brothers: Cartel Ties That Bind

Like the unwanted dandelions that sprout in lawns, cartel and gang partners continue to adapt and survive. The systematic corruption of our police, courts and political system is their goal.

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Like the unwanted dandelions that sprout in lawns, cartel and gang partners continue to adapt and survive. Whatever code of conduct that may have restrained them in the past has disappeared.

Their terrible acts of violence and cruelty continue to escalate. The systematic corruption of our police, courts and political system is their goal. Those who they cannot corrupt, they murder. Journalists, police, judges, soldiers, religious leaders, women and children are all potential victims.

When they work together, the cartel-gang alliance is a serious threat to our national security.

U.S. street and prison gangs have done business with Mexican drug traffickers since the 1920s. No one gang or Mexican cartel had exclusive agreements with one another. It was basically a free market, but some of the larger more powerful gangs began forming alliances in Mexico.

In the 1970s, California's Mexican Mafia prison gang members such as Joe "Pegleg" Morgan cultivated friendships with Mexican nationals while serving time with them in state and federal prisons. One such connection was Jesus "Chuy" Arajo, a trafficker with connections to Mexican suppliers.

Alex "Hondo" Lechuga had his own connections — to Mexican Mafia member and homeboy of Luis "Huero Buff" Flores, the founder of the Mexican Mafia — and owned businesses in Juarez, Mexico. Half-Mexican and half-Korean Mafia member, Manuel "Mad Korean" Enerva from San Diego, also had his own connections. His father was a police officer in Baja California.

In fact, several San Diego street gangs such as Shell Town, Logan Heights, National City, Pasole, and Del Sol had developed strong alliances in Mexico. However, these alliances were often temporary and between a few members (rather than the whole gang) and any one cartel.

However, U.S. Latino gangs often protected Mexican cartel members while they were in U.S. custody or in the gang turf, and Mexican cartels often employed U.S. gang members when they were "on the run" from U.S. authorities in Mexico.

David "Popeye" Barron was a Logan Heights gang member from 30th Street in San Diego. He was also a member of the California Mexican Mafia prison gang. He crossed over the border and was doing business with the Arellano-Felix brothers.

On Nov. 8, 1992, he attended a business meeting with a few of the Arellano brothers as part of their security people. They all met in Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, at "Christine's," a popular discotheque.

Unknown to the Arellanos and their security, Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman had organized an ambush. Much like the infamous St. Valentine's Day Massacre in Chicago, Chapo's hit men were dressed like cops.

Chapo Guzman lead 40 men dressed like Federales into Christine's. They entered with pistols drawn and shouting like policemen. The trick didn't work, and a fierce gun battle erupted. Chapo's men killed many innocent patrons and eight Arellano associates.

In the fog of the fire fight, the American gangster Barron distinguished himself. He grabbed a weapon and shot several of Chapo's police assassins. Barron protected the Arellanos, risking his own life to move them into the bathroom.

He supposedly returned to the discotheque floor to again engage the hit team and re-arm himself with guns stripped from the dead. He eventually got the Arellano brothers out to safety via the sky light. He supposedly hailed a taxi, secured more weapons from the local police "commandante" and returned to the discotheque. 

For his bravery and coolness under fire, the Arellanos rewarded him with the position of chief enforcer. They asked him for more soldiers like himself. Popeye Barron would later recruit fellow Mexican Mafia member Jose "Bat" Marquez from San Diego's Del Sol gang and many other members from various San Diego street gangs that he trained as Arellano enforcers.

Popeye's enforcers, or sicarii ("sicario" is Spanish for assassin), killed on both sides of the border. In 1993, 26 murders occurred in San Diego as a result of a meth turf battle between the Arellano-Felix Cartel and competing organizations.

In May of 1993, Popeye Barron and 20 of his San Diego gang assassins were on their way to the Guadalajara Airport on Arellano orders to hit "Chapo" Guzman. They were told that Chapo would be driving a white Mercury Marquis. They saw the supposed target on May 24 and riddled the car with bullets. Instead of killing Chapo, they murdered Catholic Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo and six other victims.

Because the drug cartels and their corruption affect every facet of Mexican society, questions remain about the cardinal's murder. Was his death really a mistaken identity hit or was he the actual target? The cardinal had told a childhood friend weeks before his death that he had been called to the home of Mexican President Carlos Salinas and threatened.

It is alleged that Cardinal Posadas had uncovered links to senior politicians and the drug and prostitution trade. The president's brother, Raul Salinas, is currently serving a 27-year sentence for the murder of his brother-in-law and charged with "illegal enrichment" for his links to the drug cartels.

In a deal struck in Mexico between Benjamin Arellano-Felix and the police, two Logan Heights members of the hit team were surrendered — Juan Enrique Vasconez and Ramon "Spooky" Torres Mendez. Spooky Torres was killed while awaiting trial and Vasconez received nine years on Mexican weapons charges. Prosecutors in the U.S. charged nine Logan Height members with the cardinal's hit-squad murder. Three pled guilty and they are serving 18 to 22 years in prison.

In 1993, my LASD Prison Gang Unit had developed an important informant in the Mexican Mafia. Ernest "Chuco" Castro was a respected member of the Varrio Nuevo Estrada (VNE) Gang in Los Angeles and a shot caller in the Mexican Mafia. The EME had begun taxing and controlling street gangs in Los Angeles, Orange County and San Bernardino counties.

The EME leaders would meet once or twice a month at a motel or hotel. Unknown to them, we had formed a multi-agency task force with the FBI, LAPD and CDC. We were covertly monitoring their meetings and wire tapping their phones.

On a sunny Saturday on June 25, 1994 at a Days Inn in Monterey Park, Calif., a dozen or so Mexican Mafia members met in one of the rooms. The meeting was recorded with both audio and video tapes. Attending this meeting was Jose "Bat" Marquez. This is how I first heard about the Christine's discotheque shoot-out and the assassination of Cardinal Posadas, as narrated by EME member Bat Marquez.

Bat's purpose was to ask his Mafia bothers to assist Popeye and the Arellanos to find and kill Chapo Guzman — the head of the Sinaloa Cartel. The Arellanos offered $2 million and whatever state they wanted in Mexico. They also offered drugs and "heavy artillery" and their help crossing it into the U.S.

Bat warned that it would not be easy. He said that Chapo neither drank nor used drugs. He takes care of his family and soldiers. He has a 40-man security force and drives a tricked out four-wheel-drive armored car. He does car bombings. But he does have a weakness. He worships Satan. He had a small son who was ill. Chapo would bring him to the U.S. to be treated, because Chapo doesn't trust Mexican doctors or hospitals.

Bat Marquez said that he wanted to start a chemical lab store and would pick up five drums of ephedrine next week in Mexico. He will keep the chemicals on the Mexican side of the border but the EME brothers were welcome to all they wanted. Bat Marquez only asked for help on how to make the meth.

Several Mexican Mafia members who attended this meeting took trips to Tijuana in the days that followed. Several returned with ephedrine or meth. But 22 of them would be arrested on April 29, 1995, and charged under federal RICO statutes. If we hadn't broken up their games, I'm sure they would have cemented a closer more dangerous alliance with the Arellano-Felix Tijuana cartel. And many more people would have been murdered.

In San Diego in January of 1995, a multi-agency task force comprised of the DEA, FBI, INS, USMS, Customs and the Chula Vista PD was formed to combat the Arellano-Felix Organization (AFO). They would also eventually charge and convict numerous U.S. street gang members and members of the Mexican Mafia. 

On Nov. 10, 1997, the Barron-Arellano hit team killed two Mexican soldiers in front of the Tijuana court house. The Zeta Weekly news magazine named David Barron as the assassin.

As a result, on Nov. 22, 1997, Popeye Barron and his hit team ambushed Zeta Editor Jesus Blancornelas, who was seriously wounded. They killed his bodyguard and driver. A stray round struck the pavement, skipped, and hit Popeye above one eye. David Popeye Barron was dead.

In addition, because of the courageous news stories by investigative television reporter Chris Blatchford, together with the effective work of Mexican Army Maj. Felipe Perez-Cruz of the Office of the General Prosecutor (Procuraduria General de la Republica, PGR) and his elite squad, public attention on both sides of the border focused on the Arellano-Felix brothers and their bloody Mexican Mafia assassins.

One by one the Arellano-Felix leadership began to fall. Jesus Labra-Aviles, a cartel lieutenant, was arrested in March of 2000. Ismael "El Mayel" Higuera Guererro was arrested in May. Arellano Brother Benjamin was arrested in March 9, 2002. In February of 2002, Arellano muscleman Ramón was on his way to murder rival Ismael "Mayo" Zambada in Mazatlan when he was shot by police loyal to Zambada.

A few days later Manuel "Tarzan" Herrera, an important Arellano smuggler, was arrested. Francisco Javier Arellano-Felix was arrested by the U.S. Coast Guard off the Baja California coast, and Eduardo Arellano-Felix was arrested after a shootout in Tijuana by Mexican soldiers on Oct. 26, 2008.

The Arellano-Felix cartel is now being run by Luis Fernando Sanchez Arellano, the son of Enedina, one of the four Arellano sisters. Armando Villareal Heredia and Edgardo Leyva Escandon act as his trusted lieutenants.

The work of federal task forces in San Diego and Los Angeles has resulted in charges and convictions for most of the Mexican Mafia's active members in Southern California in a series of RICO conspiracy cases. Under the administration of Mexico's President Felipe Calderon, a more cooperative relationship has begun.

Many of the American gang members and Mexican cartel members have been extradited to the U.S. Even Mexican Mafia and Arellano associate Jose "Bat" Marquez has been arrested by Mexican drug fighters and extradited to the U.S.

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