Tijuana is a complex city; it´s location makes it unique in so many ways, including organized crime. The situation in Tijuana is unlike any other city in Mexico, the murder rates are still high but people on the streets feel “safe”, drugs keep moving in all directions, but the convoys of sicarios are all but gone. The kidnapping numbers dropped drastically but still people disappear without trace, federal agents are seldom attacked by criminals and the army has returned to its headquarters.
Many claim they “own” the Tijuana plaza, but almost all who do so seldom set foot in Tijuana.
|The Arellano Felix Brothers.
Whereas in other cities of Mexico people know what cartel has the true hold of things, in Tijuana many cells work without a visible head, sure the Sinaloa cartel corridos claim that Tijuana is a CDS plaza, but that´s up for debate.
To even try to understand the current cartel situation in Tijuana we got to go back a few years, in the 90´s, the all-powerful Tijuana cartel ruled the city without any obstacles, Federal government didn´t care for cartels and the local authorities had -in almost all cases- arrangements with the cartel, Sinaloa´s cartel didn´t exist as such, in fact, most Sinaloa cartel leaders were part of the Juarez cartel at the time, Mayo Zambada had people in Tijuana but they usually kept a very low profile and many of them ended up dead.
In fact, Mayo Zambada used to work alongside the Arellano Felix brothers without issues, according to the book “El Cartel” by journalist Jesus Blancornelas, Mayo Zambada used to live in Tijuana, he paid “piso” to CAF and used to go around the city without bodyguards, however, he started being late on his payments to CAF, arguing that he had no money and sooner than later Ramon Arellano got fed up with it.
They sent a group of sicarios to kill Mayo but a discussion between the killers made them fail. Mayo got word of it and fled the city. That´s one side on the story, on Sinaloa I´m sure you´ll listen to a different one.
The following is a list of the most important events in this war that has been going on for more than 20 years:
The death of Armando Lopez aka “El Rayo de Sinaloa”
Armando Lopez was a well-known trafficker from Sinaloa, his area of influence was the Sonora desert where he used to land Cessna planes full of cocaine. Lopez was a close friend of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and was sent to Tijuana to speak with Benjamin Arellano on behalf of “El Chapo”.
When “El Rayo” arrived at Tijuana he went partying with his girlfriend, when both were drunk, they decided to crash the baptism party of one of Benjamin´s daughters, since they didn´t carry an invitation the guards at the door stopped them, this angered Lopez who started fighting with them, Ramon noticed this and without saying anything shot “El Rayo” in the head, after this he picked up the body and threw it in the back of a Pick-up truck, drove to the outskirts of Tijuana and dumped it. After the death of “El Rayo” a group of hit men travelled to Sinaloa and killed Lopez´s brothers and father, this was done in order to prevent possible retribution from Lopez´s family against Ramon.
Rigoberto Campos gets killed
Rigoberto Campos Salcido, cousin of the famed Manuel Salcido Uzeta aka “El Cochiloco” used to work in the plazas of Tijuana, Tecate, Mexicali and San Luis Rio Colorado without problems, when the Arellano Felix brothers grew in power they felt he was invading “their plaza”.
At first he was told to stop working in Tijuana but he refused to take orders from the young brothers, the Arellano´s felt they needed to send a message and dispatched a group to Mexicali where Salcido was kidnapped, his captors took him to a ranch where they ripped his arms with a thresher.
Rigoberto barely saved his life and ended up with prosthetic arms, however, he continued to visit Tijuana where his fate was sealed. In 1991 the Arellano Felix brothers got word that Salcido was betting on horse races in the outskirts of Tijuana, they knew the route he would use and set an ambush, this was the first major execution in which hundreds of bullets were fired to kill somebody in Mexico.
|Grand Marquis from Rigoberto Campos after the attack.
El Cochiloco, an old debt gets settled
Manuel Salcido Uzeta aka “El Cochiloco” was the last leader of the Guadalajara cartel, the same legendary cartel formed by Miguel Angel “El Padrino” Felix Gallardo, Ernesto “Don Neto” Fonseca and Rafael “El Principe” Caro Quintero, Salcido used to control Jalisco and Colima, where he received large shipments of Cocaine from Pablo Escobar in Colombia. The Tijuana cartel didn´t had any intentions of owning Guadalajara in that time, they didn´t consider “El Cochiloco” as an enemy, yet.
Salcido´s mistake-like many more after him- was greed; he stole 4 tons of cocaine from a Colombian ship destined to Ensenada, Baja California. The cocaine belonged to the Cali cartel and was sent to the Arellano Felix brothers in Tijuana, only half of the original 8 tons shipment arrived at Ensenada and Ramon Arellano refused to pay the missing 4 tons to the Colombians.
At the end a deal was made, if the Colombians killed Salcido, Ramon would pay the 8 tons to the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers. On October 9th, 1991, Salcido was driving his Ramcharger SUV when a group of hit men from Colombia and Tijuana ambushed him, his body received more than 70 gunshots. From then on, the Guadalajara plaza became property of the Tijuana cartel.
|Manuel Salcido´s corpse.
The Christine´s shootout
According to “El Cartel” by Jesus Blancornelas, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada was the one who betrayed the brothers, in his book, Blancornelas claims “El Mayo” invited the brothers to celebrate in the Puerto Vallarta nightclub “Christine”, Benjamin, Ramon and Francisco Javier were ready to leave the hotel room when Zambada called Benjamin and said he wouldn´t make It because he got a tip someone was trying to cross a shipment without Benjamin´s approval.
Benjamin was angry and decided not to go out, however Ramon and Francisco Javier had already had plans for the night and went to the nightclub anyway. Ramon and “El Tigrillo” arrived at “Christine” with several Baja California state agents as bodyguards, Zambada didn´t show up, but someone from Sinaloa did, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman sent group of 50 men wearing military uniforms and bulletproof vests, when the group arrived at the nightclub they identified themselves as Federal Agents, the Tijuana cartel bodyguards identified as Baja California State Agents but were shot to dead.
Inside, a hit man from San Diego´s Barrio Logan by the name of David Barron noticed something wrong was about to happen and took the brothers to the bathroom. Barron killed some of the hit men from “El Chapo” and took their weapons, covering up for Ramon´s escape.
Francisco Javier wasn´t so lucky and was taken by Chapo´s gunmen. Ramon and Benjamin thought “El Tigrillo” was already dead, but he wasn´t, Chapo´s men told him the war wasn´t against him, nor the family but against Ramon and left him in the outskirts of Vallarta.
|Christine in Puerto Vallarta.
To kill a Cardinal
If we were to pinpoint one single event that changed the whole course of the Tijuana cartel´s history, it´s got to be the shootout at Guadalajara´s airport in May 24th, 1993. Seeking revenge for the “Christine” shootout, the Tijuana cartel searched for Joaquin Guzman everywhere, one of their sources told them that “El Chapo” was hiding in Guadalajara and Ramon travelled there along with a group of Barrio Logan hit men.
Their search proved fruitless and they decided to go back to Tijuana, then, someone informed Ramon that “Chapo” was to take a flight and would arrive in a white Mercury Grand Marquis to the airport. Ramon quickly went there with his team and when they saw a white Grand Marquis, they started the shootout, “Chapo” wasn´t in that car, he was arriving in a green Cutlass when he heard the gunshots and run away from the scene. The passenger in the white Grand Marquis was none other than Catholic Church Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo.
Now that´s the official story, the Catholic Church believes someone set Posadas up and that the Arellano brothers had nothing to do with it, neither Chapo, that version isn´t confirmed yet, but Benjamin Arellano blamed the Mexican Government for Posada’s murder and claimed that both “Chapo” and the Tijuana cartel were framed. Anyway, this marked the beginning of the downfall for the brothers.
|Posadas Ocampo´s car.
The capture of “El Chapo” in Guatemala
The Tijuana cartel, along with Joaquin Guzman Loera and his partner Hector Luis Palma Salazar became Mexico´s number one enemies after the death of Posadas Ocampo.
The Mexican Government needed to arrest ASAP at least one of them, “El Chapo” knew they were after him and decided to leave the country, before doing so, he ordered his lieutenants to continue with the shipments and to protect his family, then he fled to Central America, he was spotted in El Salvador but the Salvadoran Government said they didn´t had the resources to arrest him, Guzman knew of this and travelled to Guatemala were he paid 1 million USD to local authorities to protect him, instead of doing so, the Guatemalan Army arrested him and expelled him to Mexico.
This somehow took some heat away from the Tijuana cartel leaders who at the moment were hiding in places like Russia, Spain and even in the USA.
|Chapo Guzman in Federal custody, circa 1993
The Bali-Hai shootout
In December 1993, the Tijuana cartel sent their “elite” group of killers, then known as “narcojuniors” to Mexico City, their mission was to gun down Amado Carrillo Fuentes aka “El Señor de los Cielos”.
Carrillo was the leader of the Juarez cartel and boss of both Ismael Zambada and Joaquin Guzman, with “El Chapo” in jail, the brothers saw this as an opportunity to kill the man they saw as their biggest threat.
Fabian Martinez aka “El Tiburon” or “9-9”, Federico Sanchez Valdez aka “G-1”, Merardo Leon Hinojosa aka “El Abulon” or “3-3” among others arrived at the Bali-Hai restaurant, they gunned down Carrillo´s bodyguards at the door and tried to kill him but were repelled by Alcides Ramon Magaña aka “El Metro” and his team of hit men, Carrillo and his family were saved, Carrillo’s wife was wounded in the shootout, at the time, the cartels didn´t mess with each other families, this escalated the war against the Tijuana cartel.
|Amado Carrillo Fuentes aka “El Señor de los Cielos”
The Bomb against “El Mayo”
In June 1994, Ismael Zambada was to attend a birthday party in Guadalajara, Jalisco, the party was organized by known drug dealer Luis Enrique “El Kiki” Fernandez Uriarte, who was celebrating his daughter´s 15 years of life. “El Mayo” was one of the many top drug lords invited to the party and the Tijuana cartel knew that, they thought the best way to kill him would be with C4 explosives, when the men in charge of the explosives were putting them in place, one of their cell phones rang and triggered the detonator, killing them instantly and hurting members of “Los Coyonqui” and “Los Huracanes del Norte” outside the Camino Real Hotel.
The official military report on the subject mentions that several Federal and State police commanders along with prominent politicians attended the party. Benjamin Arellano is considered the mastermind behind this attack.
|Remains of the attacker´s car after the bomb explosion.
|The capture of Hector “El Guero” Palma
Hector Palma Salazar aka “El Guero” was a violent man, he started his criminal career as a sicario, then became bodyguard of the famous Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, soon he was in charge of the cocaine route from Sinaloa to San Luis Rio Colorado, but he fell from Felix Gallardo´s grace and his wife and children were killed.
Guadalupe Laija (Palma´s wife) was decapitated by a Venezuelan drug lord who also took Palma´s children and threw them alive from a bridge. All this just made the already violent Palma even worse, he became allied with “El Chapo” and ”El Mayo”, together they launched a campaign to conquer Sinaloa.
Palma Salazar´s actions were considered at the time so brutal, that even the Arellano Felix family paid for several, full center-page adds in the Excelsior newspaper complaining that both “El Chapo” and “El Guero” were the ones responsible for the violent acts in Sinaloa and accusing them of not respecting women and children in their attacks.
“El Guero” was a powerful foe for the Arellano Felix brothers, but luck was on their side in 1995, June 22nd to be exact. One day Palma left Ciudad Obregon on his way to the Toluca airport, at mid-air he was told that the army was waiting for him so he ordered his pilot to land in Zacatecas, the army also raided the Zacatecas airport so Palma thought about landing in Guadalajara.
On his way he was again told that the army already arrived at the Guadalajara airport so he finally decided for Tepic´s airport but as luck would have, his Learjet ran out of fuel and crashed near the Nayarit border.
Palma Salazar survived the accident but was badly hurt, then Federal Police commander Apolinar Pintor Aguilera saved him and took him to Zapopan were he was finally arrested after the army raided his house.
With both “El Chapo” and “El Guero” in jail, and “Mayo Zambada” on the run, the Arellano Felix brothers felt they had won the war in 1995.
|Hector Luis Palma Salazar aka “El Guero”
The “Scorpion Operation”
On March 1st, 1996, an operation code named “Alacran” (Scorpion) was conducted in Tijuana by the Federal Police and Mexican Military, 22 homes were raided in search of Tijuana Cartel members. Many of the homes were destroyed and a minimal quantity of marijuana was seized, but no important members were arrested.
What made this operation relevant was the fact that then Federal Police commander Ernesto Ibarra Santes, was the one in charge of the operation. Ibarra Santes was in fact working for “El Mayo” Zambada and Amado Carrillo Fuentes.
Ernesto Ibarra Santes gets killed in Mexico City
Ernesto Ibarra Santes had just been named Federal Deputy Attorney General for the state of Baja California in August, 1996, he promised to capture the Arellano Felix brothers, and in fact, he really planned on doing so.
At the moment Ibarra Santes was seen as a good agent, but behind his “good work” in Tijuana, there was a dark story, Ibarra Santes was a friend and ally of Amado Carrillo Fuentes, according to witness testimony Ibarra Santes sold intelligence information about the Arellano Felix brothers to Amado Carrillo, he was so good at selling info on them that Amado soon made a close friendship with him.
It was in a reunion in Agua Prieta, Sonora, where Ibarra Santes gave Amado a yellow envelope with some wiretapped phone calls from Ramon Arellano, witness accounts claim Amado offered Ibarra all the Brazilian girls in the party but Ibarra said he didn´t had any time. Ibarra left and Amado continued talking with Mexican General Mario Arturo Acosta Chaparro, who advised Carrillo to not mess with the Arellano Felix brothers. That was the last time Carrillo and Ibarra Santes met.
One week after the reunion, Ibarra Santes travelled to Mexico City, the Arellano brothers knew of this trip and sent their best hit men to kill him. Alfredo Hodoyan Palacios aka “El Lobo”, Emilio Valdes Mainero and Fabian Martines Gonzalez aka “El Tiburon” followed Ibarra after he left Mexico City´s airport.
Ibarra took two bodyguards with him and took a taxi towards his hotel. The Tijuana “Narcojuniors” caught up with him and stopped their white Cutlass in front of the taxi, Ibarra´s bodyguards did not react in time and they were all killed along with the taxi driver. Ibarra was the only one who survived the initial attack but died on his way to the hospital.
The same witness recalls that Amado Carrillo knew of this when he was watching the news along “El Mayo” Zambada, and some Colombian drug lords in Mexico City. Amado supposedly cried his friend´s death the whole night.
|The bodyguards of Ibarra Santes had no chance.
The merger that never happened: Tijuana and Juarez
The late journalist Jesus Blancornelas narrated a series of reunions between Amado Carrillo and representatives of the Tijuana cartel, said reunions took place early in 1997.
The reunions were made following a recommendation by Mexican General Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, the idea behind was to end all confrontations between both cartels. Amado was interested in doing so, but he had only on condition, to be handed those who shot at her wife in the Bali-Hai shootout.
The first reunion took place in Sonora, the Arellano Felix brothers sent Manuel Aguirre Galindo aka “El Caballo” to speak with Carrillo Fuentes. At first, negotiations initially had a good course, but then Amado told Manuel his sole condition, Manuel quickly called Ramon who simply said “NO”, he wasn´t going to hand over three of his best hit men and more importantly to him, three of his friends.
Ramon then asked to speak with Amado over the cell phone but Carrillo refused. Negotiations continued anyway. Carrillo told Manuel Aguirre that he had to take a flight to Chile and he would be out of the country some time, Carrillo said he´ll call “El Caballo” when he came back, after that, “El Caballo” left on his way to Tijuana.
The call never came, but the Arellano´s knew Carrillo was back in Mexico. They knew he was to be admitted into a plastic surgery clinic to change his face and have a small liposuction.
Here´s where things get murky, the following is the official account of that surgery.
On July 5th, Amado Carrillo arrived at Mexico City where he was admitted in a plastic surgery clinic, the surgery lasted more than 8 hrs, everything seemed to be OK, but on the early hours of the next day he woke up with major pain, a sedative was injected to him which caused a massive heart attack.
Just like with almost all deaths of high ranking criminals, Amado´s death is full of conspiracy theories, some claim he really died in an accident, other´s claim he was killed either by Colombian´s or by the Tijuana cartel, some others claim Amado retired and fooled the DEA. Either way, Amado was gone and the Tijuana cartel had lost another enemy, maybe the most powerful enemy they ever faced.
|Alleged corpse of Amado Carrillo.
TO BE CONTINUED…