The Tijuana Cartel, also known as the Arellano Félix Organization, is based in one of the most strategically important Mexico border cities for trafficking drugs into the United States. Due to infighting, arrests and the deaths of many top leaders, the organization is a shell of what it was in the 1990s and early 2000s, when it was considered one of Mexico’s most potent and violent criminal groups. Still the cartel continues to export narcotics and may be expanding its presence internationally.
The Tijuana Cartel traces its roots back to the western state of Sinaloa. Its founding members were Sinaloans who worked closely with the legendary trafficker Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, alias “El Padrino,” who began moving marijuana and heroin into the United States in the 1960s. El Padrino worked with a group of Sinaloans including Pedro Avilés Pérez, Rafael Caro Quintero and Ernesto Fonseca.
The group left Sinaloa and formed the Guadalajara Cartel in the late 1970s amid campaigns to eradicate illicit crops, mass arrests and a military offensive in their home state that left Avilés dead. He was replaced by another Sinaloan named Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo,” who would go on to form the infamous Sinaloa Cartel. The Guadalajara Cartel’s other members were also grooming their own replacements. Fonseca’s nephews, Amado and Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, would later create the Juarez Cartel and the Arellano Félix brothers — Benjamin, Ramón, Francisco Rafael, Francisco Javier, Eduardo (their brothers Luis Fernando and Carlos reportedly did not participate) — would form the core of the future Tijuana Cartel.
After leaving Sinaloa, the Guadalajara Cartel began working with Colombian traffickers, moving large quantities of cocaine. In the early 1980s, a veteran agent of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) named Enrique Camarena began gathering evidence to prosecute the cartel members. Shortly after helping Mexican authorities destroy a large marijuana field, Camarena was killed by Guadalajara Cartel operatives. The United States began a massive manhunt and pressured Mexico to do the same. Caro Quintero was arrested in April 1985 in Costa Rica, but was released early from prison in Mexico on a technicality in August 2013. El Padrino remained at large for years but was arrested in April 1989.
From prison El Padrino divided up his territories. El Chapo and his partner, Héctor Luis Palma Salazar, got parts of Baja California and Sonora; Rafael Aguilar Guajardo would get from Juarez to Nuevo Laredo (the Carrillo Fuentes brothers would later take over this route); and the Arellano Félix brothers would get Tijuana.
The brothers looked to expand almost immediately. Shortly after El Padrino’s imprisonment, Ramón Arellano Félix killed a close associate of El Chapo in Sinaloa. The fight quickly spread. In May 1993, the Arellano Félix brothers sent gunmen to intercept El Chapo at the Guadalajara airport, striking and killing a Mexican cardinal instead. Francisco Rafael Arellano Félix was arrested by Mexican authorities in 1993, but after El Chapo and Palma were arrested, the Arellano Félix clan grew to unprecedented heights. They made a pact with the Caro Quintero clan in Sonora, the Milenio Cartel in Michoacán, as well as alliances in Colima, Jalisco and Oaxaca that allowed them to dominate the trade from north to south.
After El Chapo escaped prison in 2001, a new round of fighting began. In February 2002, Ramón Arellano Félix traveled to Mazatlán to oversee the assassination of Sinaloa Cartel faction leader Ismael Zambada García, alias “El Mayo.” However El Mayo’s men were able to kill Ramón instead. A month later Mexican authorities arrested Benjamin Arellano Félix, leaving Eduardo Arellano Félix and his sister Enedina to lead the Tijuana Cartel. The cartel’s leadership continued to suffer arrests and extraditions. Shortly after completing a 10-year prison sentence in Mexico, Francisco Rafael was extradited to the Unite States in 2006, but later released early on good behavior. Mexican authorities captured Francisco Javier in 2006, and Eduardo in 2008.
The Tijuana Cartel split after Eduardo’s arrest. The founding members’ nephew Fernando Sánchez Arellano, alias “El Ingeniero,” headed up one faction, while Eduardo Teodoro García Simental, alias “El Teo” or “Tres Letras,” headed up another. El Teo sought an alliance with the Sinaloa Cartel, while El Ingeniero reportedly allied himself with the Zetas. A bloody feud ensued, but following the arrest of El Teo in January 2010, the organization appeared to consolidate again under El Ingenierio.
In December 2012, the last of the arrested Arellano Félix brothers, Eduardo, was extradited to the United States, and was sentenced to 15 years in US prison in August 2013. The oldest brother, Francisco Rafael, was assassinated in October 2013, though he was no longer considered a major player. El Ingeniero was arrested by Mexican authorities in June 2014, leaving his mother Enedina in charge.
After around 2010 Tijuana enjoyed a relative peace, attributed to a truce between the Tijuana and Sinaloa Cartels, with Sinaloa retaining primary control of Tijuana and the surrounding area. However, a report in early 2015 indicated the Tijuana Cartel may be attempting to retake territory from Sinaloa. Other reports indicate the Tijuana Cartel may have begun expanding its presence abroad.
In 2016, following the re-arrest of El Chapo, evidence emerged that the remnants of the Tijuana Cartel had formed an alliance with the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) seeking to challenge the Sinaloa Cartel’s hegemony in the northern border state of Baja California. Despite the capture of several top suspected members of the Tijuana Cartel since that time, the group appears to retain significant control in the area.
Enedina Arellano Felix, alias “La Narcomami,” heads the Tijuana Cartel. Enedina is a sister of the cartel’s founding members. Prior to leading the Tijuana Cartel, she reportedly handled much of the organization’s finical operations and money laundering.
The Tijuana Cartel primarily operates in its namesake city. Located on the US-Mexico border, Tijuana is a strategic location for smuggling drugs into Southern California.
Allies and Enemies
The Tijuana Cartel is suspected of forming a truce with former rival the Sinaloa Cartel. However, new reports indicate the two cartels may again be competing.
Although the Tijuana Cartel has fallen sharply from the height of its power in the 1990s to early 2000s, the organization continues to exist and is thought to be powerful enough to charge “piso” or tax for shipping drugs through areas it controls. The capture of Sinaloa Cartel head El Chapo may allow the Tijuana Cartel to consolidate its control in its home turf, especially in alliance with more powerful groups like the CJNG.