Witness to History: Mexico's Drug Cartels
Held at the U.S. Navy Memorial’s Burke Theatre, guests enjoyed a fascinating program that detailed specific accounts from agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the California Department of Justice who helped take down one of Mexico’s most notorious drug cartels. 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. The discussion delved into how the DEA and local law enforcement fought to stop the Arellano Félix family and dismantle the cartel.
National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund President and CEO Craig W. Floyd kicked off the with a brief introduction, including the announcement that construction of the National Law Enforcement Museum has started this week. Mr. Floyd introduced moderator Dr. Nathan Jones, an assistant professor at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
The Museum’s Witness to History program began in June 2011. Since the inaugural event, 12 more have been presented. Video recordings and photos from this event are available to view on the Museum's website.
For more information about the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, please visit nleomf.org. For more information about the National Law Enforcement Museum, please visit nleomf.org/museum.