The Mexico arrest yesterday of Jose de Jesus Mendez Vargas--"The Monkey"--was the second takedown of a leader of the La Familia drug cartel in just six months. Nazario Moreno, the former leader of the cartel with the biggest drug pipeline into Washington state, was killed by Mexican security forces in December 2010. Severing the organizational head biannually can obviously have a chilling effect and squeeze the flow through the pipeline. It also indicates that investigators have gotten deeper inside Mexican cartel operations. Federal agencies are more capable of identifying and tracking which cartel is shipping where, and to whom. They're finding, however, more drugs going more places.
The Mexican cartels have expanded their control over cocaine smuggling to the point where they are also involved in the smuggling of South American cocaine to Europe and Australia.
In Seattle, cartel-related busts have been ongoing in a big way since the last decade, and in 2009, after a major bust locally of La Familia, an assistant U.S. attorney proclaimed "We believe these arrests have crippled La Familia." But as reports from Mexico indicate, the cartel has only grown since, becoming more sophisticated and violent, with a ready supply of new recruits after every bust or shooting.
And though La Familia has major connections here, so do other cartels, officials say.
Marisol Perez-Almonte, 28, of Renton, and Joan Luis Azamar-Sanchez, 31, of Seattle, for example, were sentenced to 10 years in February for conspiracy to distribute cocaine. They'd been arrested in Oregon with 13 pounds of cocaine in their SUV, which had been under surveillance after a Seattle detective learned Perez-Almonte was connected to the Sinaloa cartel.
That arrest, according to court records, resulted from the long surveillance of Azamar-Sanchez's common-law husband Ruben Ramirez-Ventura, 24. Federal agents trailed him up and down the coast in his gold Chevy Tahoe--with a tracking device attached--as he traded cash for drugs. In May, he also got a 10-year stretch.
In February, the East Side Task Force arrested four men with three pounds of meth; two of the men may be members of La Familia, police said. In April, Martin Omar Estrada Luna, who'd lived in Yakima County, was arrested in Mexico and accused of being a leader of the Los Zetas cartel responsible for the deaths of more than 200 people.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon hailed yesterday's capture of The Monkey ("big blow" he Tweeted), and a spokesperson said the cartel's chain of command had been destroyed. But Samuel Gonzalez Ruiz, the former head of Mexico's organized-crime unit, saw a more likely result. "The impact will be totally limited," he said, "because the illicit [drug] market is there, the extortion is there, the kidnappings are there," perhaps forever.