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The Rise and Fall of Cartel Leader Vicente Carrillo Fuentes

Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, chief of Mexico's Juarez cartel, was arrested on Thursday, joining his principal nemesis Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman in federal custody.

by Luis Chaparro
Oct 10 2014, 10:15pm

Images via FBI

Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, the longtime leader of the Juarez cartel wanted in the United States on a reward of $5 million for his role in the worst of Mexico's drug war violence, has been arrested, Mexican authorities said on Thursday.

Mexico's federal police detained Carrillo Fuentes without firing a shot in the city of Torreón, Coahuila state, at a road checkpoint. The capo was flown by helicopter to Mexico City and by nightfall was in the custody of the federal attorney general's office.

Carrillo Fuentes, a.k.a. "The Viceroy," inherited the gang's leadership in the border city of Ciudad Juarez, after his brother Amado Carrillo Fuentes died during plastic surgery in 1997.

The announcement of the arrest on Thursday came as a brighter spot of news for Mexico's government, as it responds to protests across the country after the possible massacre of 43 teaching students by municipal police officers in the southern state of Guerrero.

Suspected student massacre illustrates depth of lawlessness in Mexico. Read more here.

A federal court in Dallas has indicted Carrillo Fuentes on 46 charges, including trafficking marijuana and cocaine to the US, money laundering, and ordering the killing of US informants. He has also been indicted on narcotics charges in federal court in New York and wanted on separate drug charges in Mexico.

Formed in 1970, the Juarez cartel became one of the principal drug-trafficking organizations in central northern Mexico, transferring drugs successfully across the border into El Paso for years before locking itself into a bitter struggle with the Sinaloa cartel for control of the key trafficking point to the US.

That violence resulted in the deaths of at least 10,000 people between 2008 and 2012, according to official figures.

Since then, homicides have dropped in Ciudad Juarez, but the violence generated by the drug trade has not completely subsided. On October 2, the Chihuahua state prosecutor's office updated its homicide figures, saying 156 people had been killed so far in the year — a significant drop from a high of 1,571 in 2011.

Vicente Carrillo Fuentes now joins his principal nemesis in Mexican federal custody, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, the former chief of the Sinaloa cartel who was arrested in the port city of Mazatlán in February.

Their organizations' fight for the Ciudad Juarez "plaza," as trafficking hubs in Mexico are known, led Ciudad Juarez to be dubbed the most violent city in the world by the Citizen Council for Public Security and Justice.

It is still unclear who will take over either cartels' operations in the Juarez-El Paso border region, sources told VICE News this week.

Some analysts maintain the street gang La Línea, which has operated as an enforcer wing of the Juarez cartel, will likely take a more prominent role in trafficking on the Juarez border after Carrillo Fuentes's arrest. No definitive intelligence has found who is heading the Sinaloa operations in the Juarez border corridor so far.

Relatively little is known about Carrillo Fuentes compared to the heavily documented life of "El Chapo" Guzmán.

The US says he was born on October 16, 1962, in a small community in the municipality of Navolato, Sinaloa state, making him a week shy of his 52nd birthday. Retired agents from the US Drug Enforcement Administration in El Paso told VICE News that Vicente was possibly addicted to cocaine. He bears several scars on his face, marking his survival of shootouts and assassination attempts, agents say.

The Juarez cartel was co-founded by Rafael Aguilar Guajardo, an former agent of the Dirección Federal de Seguridad (DFS), the 1970s-era Mexican equivalent to the FBI.

In 1980, Aguilar found himself a deputy in the form of Amado Carrillo Fuentes, a nephew of one of his business partners. But in 1993, after a group of armed men killed Aguilar on a beach in Cancun, Amado inherited control of the organization and developed a profile as an able and corrupt negotiator.

By the 1990s, the Juarez cartel enjoyed a golden period, using a fleet of small aircraft to move drugs from Mexico to the US, leading to the gang leader's nickname, "El Señor de los Cielos" or "Lord of the Skies."

Amado bought off police, federal agents, soldiers, and officers with such skill that the criminal gang became one of the largest in Mexico, on par with the once-powerful Tijuana cartel.

Then, the story repeats itself. On July 4, 1997, Amado Carrillo Fuentes went under the knife in Mexico City for plastic surgery meant to help him avoid detection by authorities. The surgery failed and Amado died at the age of 40. The leadership of the gang then went to Amado's younger brother, Vicente Carrillo Fuentes.

Latest Mexican Drug Lord Arrest Is a Fatal Blow to the Beltran Leyva Cartel. Read more here.

An Alliance Crumbles
For a time, an alliance was built between the Juarez and Sinaloa gangs.

Joaquín Guzmán, who had been more linked to the narco elite in western Mexico rather than in the north, escaped from a high-security Mexican prison — in a laundry cart — in 2001. Former DEA agents familiar with the story tell VICE News that it was Guzmán who initially proposed a "federation" in the state of Chihuahua with the Juarez gang.

But in 2004, the alliance fell apart, reportedly after "El Chapo" ordered the killing of Vicente's younger brother, Rodolfo. By 2005, natives of Ciudad Juarez began feeling a heavier presence of the Sinaloa cartel in the city, and by 2008, open warfare between the two trafficking groups erupted, leading to the nightmare that became Ciudad Juarez's wave of violence.

I lost of a lot of my friends in the shootouts and armed attacks brought by the Juarez-Sinaloa drug war. A lot of my friends lost their parents in the fighting. We all lost someone.

That's why, when Guzmán was caught earlier this year, Ciudad Juarez trembled. The rumor was that the Juarez cartel would attempt to reassert itself over the trafficking "plaza." We all thought we'd have to return to a bunker lifestyle, staying indoors and avoiding public places.

But this didn't happen. Murders continued but didn't increase.

On Thursday, Vicente Carrillo Fuentes also was taken down. Right now in Ciudad Juarez, the police cruisers are as commonplace as mosquitos in the summer. The Juarez police department told reporters that no changes would be made in how the city would be patrolled after the arrest of Carrillo Fuentes.

We all hope so, but history has taught us a cold lesson: the fall of a drug lord doesn't decapitate a criminal organization.

If Ciudad Juarez is back, why haven't the killings stopped? Read the VICE News report here.

Follow Luis Chaparro on Twitter @LuisKuryaki.