Mexico captures US-born Tijuana drug lieutenant

July 11, 2011 - 10:15 PM

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Federal police have captured a U.S.-born drug lieutenant who joined the Tijuana cartel after the crackdown of the notorious Arellano Felix brothers caused the group to splinter and emerge with a younger leadership, officials said Monday.

Armando Villareal Heredia is a San Diego native accused of trafficking drugs from the northern state of Sinaloa into the United States, federal police said in a statement.

The 33-year-old is also wanted by the U.S. on federal conspiracy and racketeering charges, according to a 2010 complaint that alleges murder, kidnapping and other crimes in both Mexico and California. Named in the most-wanted list of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's San Diego region, Villareal is among 43 defendants charged by the U.S. Attorney.

Mexican and U.S. authorities say Villareal takes orders from Fernando Sanchez Arellano, aka "The Engineer," a drug kingpin who is the leader of a younger but weaker Tijuana cartel. Sanchez, who is in his 30s, is a nephew of the four Arellano Felix brothers who have been either killed or arrested since 2006.

In the complaint, U.S. officials say Sanchez's criminal organization is an offshoot of the defunct Arellano Felix cartel, whose domination of Tijuana was fictionally portrayed in the Hollywood movie "Traffic."

Federal police arrested Villareal on Saturday in the northern city of Hermosillo.

Justice Department spokeswoman Debra Hartman confirmed Villareal was a U.S. citizen. Hartman did not want to comment on Monday on a possible extradition request.

In the past, Mexican authorities have captured other drug cartel members born in the U.S. Last August Mexican authorities captured a Texas-born drug kingpin Edgar Valdez Villarreal, known as "La Barbie."

The arrest or death of the Tijuana cartel's leadership in recent years sparked a bloody war of succession, but the strategy used to bring the gang down is being replicated in other violence-plagued regions.

More than 35,000 people have died since President Felipe Calderon began its offensive against organized crime in 2006, according to official figures. Some groups put the number at more than 40,000.

In other parts of Mexico, drug cartels are also splintering to form offshoots triggering violent confrontations.

On Monday, Mexican authorities blamed the Knights Templar, a gang that broke away from La Familia cartel, for the Friday killings of 11 people outside Mexico City.

The victims were shot with high-powered rifles and found piled near a water well on the outskirts of Mexico City.

The attorney general of Mexico state, home to suburbs that ring Mexico's capital, said the victims were kidnapped two days earlier in a bar by members of the Knights Templar, according to the only survivor of the mass killing.

Attorney general Alfredo Castillo said the survivor told police only four of the 11 victims were members of the cult-like La Familia cartel and deemed as rivals of the Knights Templar.