A de­ter­mined pros­e­cu­tor tar­gets the Ti­juana car­tel

U.S. Atty. Laura Duffy gets much of the credit for crip­pling it, and now she vows to shut it down for good.

Los Angeles Times - - Front Page - Richard Marosi re­port­ing from san diego

The Mex­i­can drug king­pin was shack­led to the rail­ing of a U.S. Coast Guard cut­ter cruis­ing up the coast of Baja Cal­i­for­nia when he saw a cu­ri­ous sight: a hov­er­ing heli­copter low­er­ing some­body by rope onto the deck of a nearby boat.

The dan­gling per­son in the green flight suit was Laura Duffy, a fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor from San Diego. She had come af­ter get­ting word that U.S. au­thor­i­ties had ar­rested the king­pin, Javier Arel­lano Felix, aboard his yacht in the Gulf of Cal­i­for­nia.

Duffy, a blue-eyed 47year-old, ques­tioned Arel­lano Felix that day, but it was her air-drop en­try that made a last­ing im­pres­sion. Through­out the case that cul­mi­nated in 2007 with his be­ing sen­tenced to life be­hind bars, Arel­lano Felix re­ferred to Duffy as La Mu­jer

del Cielo, the woman from the sky.

“I’m sure my client didn’t re­al­ize that this young, at­trac­tive woman had im­mense power and author­ity in re­gards to his crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tion,” said David Bartick, the de­fense at­tor­ney for Arel­lano Felix.

Duffy is now the U.S. at­tor­ney for the South­ern District of Cal­i­for­nia, her han­dling of the sweep­ing case tar­get­ing the Arel­lano Felix drug car­tel hav­ing eased her way through the ap­point­ment process with unan­i­mous con­gres­sional ap­proval and high ex­pec­ta­tions to keep the pres­sure on or­ga­nized crime groups in Baja Cal­i­for­nia.

By many mea­sures, it seems a fu­tile task. U.S. govern­ment ef­forts to tar­get top Mex­i­can king­pins have largely failed to di­min­ish the power of Mex­ico’s drug car-


tels, with each cap­ture and con­vic­tion seem­ing only to spawn new, even dead­lier crime bosses who are ex­pand­ing their reach across Mex­ico.

But the U.S. pros­e­cu­tion of the Arel­lano Felix car­tel, also known as the Ti­juana car­tel, has been a rare, al­beit qual­i­fied, suc­cess story, lead­ing to the im­pris­on­ment of most of its lead­ers and leav­ing the once pow­er­ful or­ga­nized crime group se­verely weak­ened, if not dis­man­tled.

Duffy, who headed the pros­e­cu­tion team, gets much of the credit from U.S. and Mex­i­can law en­force­ment of­fi­cials. An Iowa-born mother of one, Duffy cut her teeth pros­e­cut­ing heroin, mar­i­juana and steroid traf­fick­ing rings be­fore tak­ing on the Arel­lano Felix case, which has lasted more than a decade.

The U.S. at­tor­ney in the South­ern District, which cov­ers San Diego and Im­pe­rial coun­ties, is mainly re­spon­si­ble for man­ag­ing the enor­mous caseload of il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion prose­cu­tions, a pol­icy that Duffy is ex­pected to con­tinue.

But her high-pro­file ex­pe­ri­ence sug­gests that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion wants to con­tinue the ag­gres­sive pur­suit of top Mex­i­can drug traf­fick­ers. Duffy, who took of­fice in June and was for­mally sworn in ear­lier this month, wasted no time es­tab­lish­ing her­self as a for­mi­da­ble force.

Flanked by top fed­eral and lo­cal law en­force­ment of­fi­cials at her first news con­fer­ence in July, she an­nounced an in­dict­ment tar­get­ing the rem­nants of the Arel­lano Felix car­tel.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion snared 31 sus­pects, in­clud­ing a top Baja Cal­i­for­nia state law en­force­ment of­fi­cial who was ar­rested in San Diego on his way to a meet­ing with his U.S. coun­ter­parts.

“The mem­bers of the Arel­lano Felix car­tel who have been in­dicted and con­victed ... are some of the most vi­o­lent or­ga­nized crime fig­ures this re­gion of the coun­try has ever seen,” Duffy said in a writ­ten re­sponse to ques­tions.

“I am com­mit­ted to clean­ing up the re­mains of the Arel­lano Felix car­tel and turn­ing our at­ten­tion to those who seek to take over where it left off.”

Duffy is widely re­spected in San Diego le­gal cir­cles and con­sid­ered a no-non­sense pros­e­cu­tor, a per­fec­tion­ist who de­mands the same from oth­ers.

“You can see that this is go­ing to be an in­cred­i­bly high-pow­ered ad­min­is­tra­tion,” San Diego County Dist. Atty. Bon­nie Du­ma­nis said at the news con­fer­ence.

But al­though Duffy’s der­ring-do has achieved near myth-mak­ing pro­por­tions — her air­drop ex­pe­ri­ence was re­counted at a con­gres­sional hear­ing in May — some an­a­lysts ques­tion whether prose­cu­tions, al­though dis­rup­tive in the short term, make a dif­fer­ence over­all.

The Arel­lano Felix car­tel may be on its last legs, but other or­ga­nized crime groups are prob­a­bly jock­ey­ing to fill the void, they say. And the car­tel con­trib­uted greatly to its own demise, earn­ing the wrath of ri­val car­tels and the Mex­i­can govern­ment, which pro­vided U.S. pros­e­cu­tors with ex­tra­or­di­nary co­op­er­a­tion.

“The [car­tel] was not just a tar­get of U.S. law en­force­ment, but also a tar­get of its en­e­mies,” said David Shirk, di­rec­tor of the Trans-Border In­sti­tute at the Uni­ver­sity of San Diego. “It’s quite likely that U.S. and Mex­i­can law en­force­ment ben­e­fited from the an­i­mos­ity that other car­tels felt” to­ward the Arel­lano Felix car­tel.

Duffy, who went to law school at Creighton Uni­ver­sity in Ne­braska, joined the U.S. Depart­ment of Jus­tice in 1993 and quickly made her mark han­dling nar­cotics cases.

She over­saw or led the prose­cu­tions of Mex­i­can Mafia mem­bers, Colom­bian heroin traf­fick­ers, Mex­i­can vet­eri­nar­i­ans ped­dling an­abolic steroid and oth­ers.

In the late 1990s she joined the Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion-led task force tar­get­ing the Arel­lano Felix car­tel. Led by broth­ers from the Mex­i­can state of Si­naloa — among them Ben­jamin, the re­puted mas­ter­mind; Ra­mon, the en­forcer; and Javier, the hard-par­ty­ing young brother — the or­ga­ni­za­tion had turned Baja Cal­i­for­nia into a ma­jor stag­ing ground for drug smug­gling into Cal­i­for­nia.

The in­dict­ment an­nounced in 2003 could serve as a grim boil­er­plate of crim­i­nal­ity for mod­ern Mex­i­can or­ga­nized crime, de­tail­ing a 16-year reign of ter­ror that cat­a­pulted the car­tel to the heights of narco-power. The broth­ers and sev­eral as­so­ci­ates were charged with tor­tur­ing, kid­nap­ping and mur­der­ing ri­vals, at­tempt­ing to trade arms for co­caine with Colom­bian rebels, sys­tem­i­cally brib­ing Mex­i­can au­thor­i­ties and stock­pil­ing hun­dreds of high-pow­ered weapons.

Dur­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, many wit­nesses, in­for­mants and Mex­i­can law en­force­ment of­fi­cials work­ing with the task force were in­tim­i­dated, tor­tured or killed, in­clud­ing Jose Patino Moreno, a cru­sad­ing Mex­i­can fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor whose head was crushed by an in­dus­trial press in 2000.

“His murder af­fected us all. Laura and I worked with him,” said San Diego County Su­pe­rior Court Judge Gon­zalo Curiel, a for­mer fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor who over­saw the pros­e­cu­tion team at the time. The tragedy, he said, only stiff­ened Duffy’s re­solve. “She didn’t flinch.... She didn’t al­low that to make her re­think whether or not she should con­tinue with the case. She per­sisted.”

Over the years, sev­eral car­tel sus­pects were cap­tured and ex­tra­dited, but the broth­ers re­mained out of reach. Ben­jamin was ar­rested and jailed in Mex­ico in 2002. Ra­mon was gunned down in Mazat­lan the same year. An­other brother, Ed­uardo, went into hid­ing.

When Javier Arel­lano Felix was in­ter­cepted in 2006 on his sport fish­ing boat, which was be­ing tracked by the DEA through a global po­si­tion­ing sys­tem de­vice, Duffy boarded the heli­copter in San Diego. Soon af­ter be­ing low­ered 150 feet from the heli­copter, she was on the Coast Guard cut­ter, sit­ting across the ta­ble from the traf­ficker. He was wear­ing a tank top and flip-flops. Duffy of­fered him a soft drink and in­tro­duced her­self.

“That kind of shows the grit­ti­ness of Laura Duffy, lit­er­ally drop­ping her­self from a heli­copter,” said Bartick, the de­fense at­tor­ney. “She took ad­van­tage of an op­por­tu­nity to talk to him be­fore he re­ceived le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tion.”

Arel­lano Felix is one of seven car­tel as­so­ci­ates who have been sen­tenced in re­cent years. His broth­ers Ben­jamin and Ed­uardo are jailed in Mex­ico and are be­ing sought for ex­tra­di­tion.

In Ti­juana, mean­while, the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s lead­er­ship has passed to a nephew of the broth­ers, Fer­nando Sanchez Arel­lano, who has found him­self in Duffy’s cross-hairs. The in­dict­ment she an­nounced in July tar­geted dozens of his crew mem­bers. It’s not clear if Sanchez Arel­lano him­self has been in­dicted. Duffy wouldn’t com­ment on his sta­tus.

Some au­thor­i­ties be­lieve the young man has fled Ti­juana. Oth­ers think he is flour­ish­ing as he re­vives his un­cles’ legacy. For some, the Ti­juana car­tel will sur­vive so long as the Arel­lano name lives on.

Duffy ap­pears to be try­ing to erase it.

In the in­dict­ment against the nephew’s gang, it is re­ferred to as the Fer­nando Sanchez Or­ga­ni­za­tion. Con­spic­u­ously ab­sent is the in­fa­mous name: Arel­lano.

“The [Arel­lano Felix car­tel] as we’ve known it no longer does ex­ist,” Duffy said.

COM­MIT­TED: Pros­e­cu­tor Laura Duffy, flanked by fed­eral agents in San Diego, walks in front of king­pin Javier Arel­lano Felix, in shorts, af­ter his ar­rest in 2006.

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