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Last Link to the Tijuana Cartel Gets Arrested While Celebrating Mexico's World Cup Win

Decked out in an official Mexico team jersey, Fernando Sánchez Arellano and his wife were dining at Carl's Jr. when he was arrested.

by Juan Carlos Reyna
Jun 29 2014, 12:45pm

Photo via General Attorney Office

For much of the 1980s and 1990s, the Arellano Felix brothers controlled the wildly profitable drug trade along the US-Mexico border from their base in Tijuana.

By the early 2000s, the criminal organization had been largely dismantled, with capos dropping year after year, except for the cartel's last symbolic link to its days of glory, a nephew of the Arellano Felix brothers named Fernando Sánchez Arellano.

On Monday, June 23, Sánchez was arrested while celebrating Mexico's World Cup victory over Croatia.

Photo by Juan Carlos Reyna

Mexican soldiers detained the last living, non-incarcerated heir to the Tijuana drug-trafficking cartel as he ate at a Carl’s Jr. restaurant in Otay, a middle-class Tijuana district.

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Decked out in an official Mexico team jersey, and with two Mexican flags painted on his face, Sánchez and his wife were dining at the fast-food restaurant, unaccompanied by bodyguards at the time of his arrest, authorities said.

A source deeply familiar with the inner workings of the Arellano Felix family told VICE News on Tuesday that the nephew of the “aretes” — as the Arellano Felix brothers are informally called in Tijuana — no longer occupied a position within the cartel’s hierarchy.

In spite of that, Mexico’s attorney general's office had offered a reward of 30 million pesos, or more than $2.3 million, for his capture.

The source — a member of the 39-year-old's inner circle — assured VICE News that Sánchez Arellano’s was no longer "relevant," since the Sinaloa Cartel gained control of the Tijuana-San Diego drug-trafficking corridor, as a direct result of the dismantling of the organization that his uncles had directed for over three decades.

Once in custody, the Arellano Felix nephew was flown by military jet from Tijuana to Mexico City to face prosecutors in the government's organized-crime unit.

Public security commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido said in a press conference that Fernando Sánchez Arellano faces a myriad of charges, ranging from extortion and kidnapping to homicide.

His capture was also noteworthy because it did not involve Mexico's highly trained Marines, which have been responsible for the major capo takedowns of recent years in Mexico, but rather the larger, more cumbersome Army, which is said in some sectors of the country to have links to organized crime or unlawful disappearances.

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Sánchez is the second Mexican drug lord to be captured by authorities during the national World Cup frenzy.

On June 17, Brazilian police in Rio de Janeiro captured a fugitive named Jose Diaz-Barajas — who was wanted for trafficking precursor chemicals used to produce methamphetamine — as the Guadalajara resident attempted to board a flight to Fortaleza to watch Mexico play against Brazil.

The "Engineer" — as Sánchez Arellano is nicknamed for his industrial engineering education at a private university — allegedly inherited the post from his uncles, Javier “El Tigrillo” Arellano and Eduardo “El Doctor” Arellano, who were arrested in 2006 and 2008, respectively.

The Tijuana cartel was once one of the most powerful criminal organizations in the world, with Benjamin "El Min" Arellano Felix and his brothers becoming responsible for supplying up to 40 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States at the peak of their network in the ‘90s.

The group's chief leader, Benjamin was arrested on March 9, 2002. A month before, his brother Ramon Arellano Felix was killed during a shootout in the coastal resort city of Mazatlan, on February 10, 2002.

But the cartel’s decline arguably began in 2000, when the National Action Party (PAN) became the ruling party and the Tijuana Cartel’s historical rival drug lord, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the head of the Sinaloa Cartel, escaped from prison with the assistance of federal officials.

After the main brothers' fall, the Tijuana Cartel managed to stay afloat thanks to the leadership of Javier and Eduardo Arellano. But at this point, the violent dispute over trafficking routes in Baja California had begun.

"I am the person who handed over El Chapo": A VICE News Exclusive. Read more here.

All of the members of the Arellano Felix family who were explicitly involved in the family drug-trade business — except for Fernando Sánchez Arellano — have been killed, or arrested and extradited. Prior to his arrest, Sánchez Arellano was believed to be the last criminal link to the family’s cartel.

The Arellano Félix family originally left Culiacan, Sinaloa, in the late 1970s and began moving cocaine to Los Angeles County, where authorities first learned of Benjamín and Eduardo after they were arrested for possession of two kilos of cocaine.

Both were released on bail in 1982. At this point, the eldest brother, Benjamin, established himself in Tijuana, where he and Ramón began to plot the multimillion-dollar trafficking operation that would eventually reach the United States, Europe, Asia, and South America.

These were not the kind of drug lords who wore cowboy boots and sombreros.

“They were the Beverly Hills 90210 of organized crime,” a former US federal prosecutor, Gonzalo Curiel, told the LA Times after the Mexican Army captured Benjamín in 2002.

After Fernando Sánchez Arellano's capture at the fast-food restaurant, soldiers descended on his single-story home — surrounded by electrical fencing — in La Mesa, another middle-class neighborhood in Tijuana.

Photo by Juan Carlos Reyna

Witnesses said that the military approached the La Mesa area in white vans, which they then used to block access to nearby Dolores Street. Two neighbors told VICE News that the operation at Fernando Sanchez Arellano's residence took approximately 40 minutes.

Soldiers discovered $100,000 in a duffel bag inside the home, authorities said.