Alleged cartel 'queen' arrested at unassuming El Monte apartment
Mexican authorities so desperately wanted to find 27-year-old Anel Violeta Noriega Rios — a woman they long alleged was a top operative in the La Familia drug cartel — they even put a $375,000 reward on her head.
But when American authorities arrested Noriega Rios on immigration charges at her modest El Monte apartment last week, law enforcement sources said they were puzzled to find such a wanted woman seemingly hiding in plain sight.
"It is the last place you’d expect to find someone who was supposed to have run so many drugs," a source familiar with the investigation told The Times. "It is not clear if she was just hiding or just had fallen on hard times."
When announcing Noriega Rios' arrest on Tuesday, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement called her a "main U.S.-based operative" in the La Familia cartel, a group often characterized as ruthless and cult-like, known for moving mostly methamphetamine — but cocaine and marijuana too — into the U.S. from the Mexican state of Michoacan.
Authorities began watching Noriega Rios in El Monte upon request from Mexican officials, who received a tip indicating she was living in the working-class San Gabriel Valley city. After authorities were able to determine that the woman was in fact Noriega Rios, they arrested her without incident.
They confirmed her identity later using fingerprints, sources said.
Immigration officials said Noriega Rios was arrested in the United States and deported to Mexico five times between 2004 and 2005 but has no criminal convictions in the U.S.
She was handed over to Mexican authorities in San Ysidro on Friday.
Noriega Rios was frequently mentioned in Mexican press reports. She was purportedly a contact between the Michoacan cartel and the powerful Sinaloa cartel and its leaders, including top cartel boss Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, a man whom the U.S. Treasury Department declared in January the world’s most powerful drug trafficker.
Reports also claimed she helped smuggle drugs from Mexico into the United States, once using a gardening company to move drugs brought by sea into Long Beach.
Mexican authorities have arrested several top-level La Familia leaders in recent years, moves not only heralded by some officials as significant blows to the cartel but that also led to internal struggles within the organization.
Sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation told The Times that about two dozen cartel operatives have been captured in the U.S. by various federal agencies in the last two years.
— Kate Mather, Hector Becerra and Richard Winton
Photo: Anel Violeta Noriega Rios, 27, is arrested June 27, 2012, in El Monte. Credit: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.