- The Washington Times - Monday, December 25, 2006

Two men believed to be high-ranking members of a Mexico-based smuggling ring are scheduled to appear today in federal court in San Diego to discuss future court dates and arrange for legal representation.

Francisco Javier Arellano-Felix, 37, and Manuel Arturo Villarreal Heredia, 31, were named last week in a seven-count federal grand jury indictment on racketeering, drug trafficking and money laundering charges in an operation that dominated the Mexican drug trade for more than a decade. The ring flooded the United States with hundreds of tons of cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine and heroin.

The indictment accuses the men of maintaining control of a drug trafficking empire through kidnappings and up to 20 slayings, including beheadings, of rivals in the drug trade, law-enforcement officers and members of the press.

Both men were arrested in August by U.S. authorities while deep-sea fishing 15 miles off the coast of La Paz, Mexico, and have been in custody in San Diego ever since. The U.S. Coast Guard apprehended them aboard a boat known as the “Dock Holiday.”

The new indictment replaces one handed up in 2003 that did not include the continuing criminal enterprise charges that could lead to their executions. Mexico has balked at extraditing those facing a possible death sentence.

A decision by federal prosecutors on whether to seek the death penalty will be made by Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales at a later date.

The indictment describes Mr. Arellano-Felix as the gang’s principal organizer and top leader since March 2000, and Mr. Villarreal as a hired assassin in command of crews that carried out enforcement operations and drug trafficking activities.

Both men pleaded not guilty during brief court appearances last week before U.S. District Judge Larry Alan Burns.

The gang, often referred to as the Tijuana Cartel, has been considered one of the most powerful and violent drug trafficking organizations in Mexico. At the height of its power, it was responsible for the transportation, importation and distribution of multi-ton quantities of cocaine, marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine into this country from Mexico — primarily from Tijuana into San Diego and Los Angeles.

Jesus Labra Aviles, long considered the financial mastermind of the organization, was arrested in Mexico City in March 2000 by the Mexican military with the support of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) Tijuana office, which ensured he was not released.

That was followed by the arrest of Ismael Higuera-Guerrero, a top lieutenant, two months later by the Mexican military in coordination with DEA. He had been the most overt member of the gang arrested, directing operations in Tijuana for years.

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