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U.S. charges top leaders of Tijuana-based drug cartel

July 23, 2010 |  3:40 pm

Federal authorities announced a wide-ranging criminal complaint Friday against top leaders of a Tijuana-based drug cartel that ran much of its operations from the San Diego area, allegedly ordering murders, kidnappings and the torture of rival traffickers in Mexico.

The racketeering conspiracy case charges 43 people, among them high-ranking lieutenants, Mexican police officers and a top official in the Baja California attorney general's office who allegedly passed along information obtained from U.S. law enforcement sources to cartel operatives.

The organized crime group, an offshoot of the Arellano Felix drug cartel, moved some operations to San Diego in recent years, seeking a safe haven from gang wars and law enforcement crackdowns south of the border, said Laura Duffy, the U.S. attorney in San Diego.

Through the use of undercover agents and surveillance, authorities prevented most of the violence in San Diego County, including six attempted murders and an attempted kidnapping, Duffy said. In Mexico, cartel members kidnapped and killed several people, and tried to shift responsibility to rival gangs through corrupt Mexican law enforcement.

By shifting management to San Diego, cartel leaders hoped to operate more freely, authorities said. Such strategies have occurred in the past, most notably in the mid-1990s, when leaders of the Arellano Felix drug cartel moved north to avoid arrest by Mexican authorities.

The 20-month investigation, handled by the multiagency San Diego Cross Border Violence Task Force, was able to use investigative tools often unavailable in Mexico, such as telephone wiretaps and informants.

"The presence of foreign-based drug-trafficking organization members and associates in San Diego will not be tolerated," Duffy said.

Thirty-one of the 43 defendants are in custody, authorities said. Twenty-seven were arrested in the San Diego area and four in Mexico. A top lieutenant, Armando Villareal Heredia, nicknamed Gordo, remains at large. Authorities also seized 1 ton of marijuana, 15 pounds of cocaine and 30 pounds of methamphetamine during the 20-month investigation.

The arrest of the Baja California official, Jesus Quinones Marques, after a traffic stop Thursday in San Diego was a setback for U.S. law enforcement agencies that work closely with counterparts in Mexico to hunt down U.S. fugitives and build cases against powerful drug-trafficking organizations.

Jesus Quinones Marques, director of international liaison for the Baja California attorney general's office, tried to plant stories in Mexican media outlets that placed the blame for killings on a rival gang, according to the 79-page indictment filed in San Diego federal court.

U.S. officials said that some information shared by U.S. liaison officers with Quinones was compromised, but that nobody's safety was put at risk. U.S. agencies, after arrests in recent years of corrupt Mexican liaison officers, usually limit information-sharing to the whereabouts of fugitives wanted in the United States.

-- Rich Marosi in San Diego