Under Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the Juarez drug cartel became a relentless death machine that sometimes extended its reach north of the border. Amado was a slight man who hardly appeared threatening at first glance. He liked to dress up for a night on the town, and was known to throw lavish parties.
Many drug dealers are partial to expensive jewelry, and Amado was no exception. According to an account in a Mexican document, Amado and other drug dealers once spent five million dollars in a single night buying new jewelry. His brother, Vicente, liked to drive a yellow Corvette and preferred Versace pants with a 34-waist size.
Vicente liked bleached-blonde women. While Amado preferred to socialize at home parties, Vicente preferred hanging out in Mexican cantinas. He was seen around Juarez without bodyguards, and in public places that included a popular sports book on Juarez Avenue, only a couple of blocks from the international line and the reach of U.S. law enforcement.
A book by Amado’s former lawyer, Jose Alfredo Andrade Bojorges, said the drug lord viewed himself as a business executive who wanted to help the Mexican economy by working with several major industries. He wrote that as a part of his quest, Amado contacted (and later enlisted) a prominent business leader in Juarez.
Amado would personally wait on friends who stopped by his house at late hours. “Ana,” who knew him, said, “I got see him make the coffee and heat the tortillas for his guests – that’s how he was.” The drug kingpin liked to play the host.
Another Juarez resident said Amado courted a young woman who worked in small office and once brought her flowers. Vicente was more flamboyant, favoring ostrich leather boots and large gold belt buckles. Both brothers liked Mexican corridos and norteña music. Of course, they inspired some of the “narco corridos,” popular folk songs about those in the drug trade.
It was widely reported that Amado was fascinated with pop singer Gloria Trevi, who was arrested and jailed in Chihuahua City on charges that she and her manager corrupted minors they trained as backup singers. Other sources alleged the cartel was behind Trevi’s imprisonment. According to a Mexican government document, Amado had a crush on the singer and pursued her. Supposedly, she angered him by rejecting his advances. Trevi, who allegedly was raped while in a Brazilian jail and gave birth to a son there, denied the Chihuahua State charges.
A close judicial review might reveal the real reason the celebrity was locked up in the same Chihuahua State prison that housed several suspects in the Juarez women’s murders.
Melina’s untimely death
In 1993, relatives filed missing person’s reports on both sides of the border for seventeen-year-old El Paso resident Melina Garcia Ledesma. Thanks to the persistence of an FBI special agent, Melina’s body was found years later – not in Juarez, but in the backyard of her El Paso home. In Juarez, it is customary for drug dealers to dispose of bodies in this manner. Melina’s husband, Alex Ledesma Jr., who was convicted of possessing cocaine in 1997, was convicted in an El Paso court of killing Melina and burying her body in their backyard.
The couple lived in an old middle-class neighborhood in Central El Paso. Prosecutors said the husband killed Melina in a fit of jealous rage. They said Alex, who comes from a family of drug dealers, also had their pet dog killed after it dug up part of Melina’s body. Alex Ledesma’s father, Alejandro Ledesma Sr., fled to Juarez to avoid testifying against his son. At one point during the trial, Melina’s parents, who had spent all their money paying private detectives to search for their daughter, became visibly upset when their former son-in-law gave his lawyer a high-five and made jokes after the judge made a ruling in the defense’s favor.
At the time, Alex Jr.’s mother, Enedina Mendoza-Ledesma, was serving a sentence at the Juarez Cereso prison for possessing opium gum. Authorities said she was a common-law wife of Gilberto “Greñas” Ontiveros, a border drug dealer who was jailed in Mexico in 1989.
Ontiveros was the only major Juarez drug lord arrested on either side of the Juarez-El Paso border in more than a decade. Police alleged Ontiveros had another common-law wife in El Paso who ran a topless club and bore him a daughter.
Authorities transferred Ontiveros to a different prison after learning that he was signing out of Juarez prison on weekends to go dancing at local nightclubs. He also occasionally kept a pet lion at the prison, which terrified other inmates.
It is a fact that neither U.S. nor Mexican authorities ever captured a major leader of the Juarez drug cartel during the 1990s and the first half of the following decade. Those years saw the Carrillo Fuentes cartel grow into the most powerful and brutal criminal organization on the border. Only the Arellano Felix cartel in Tijuana drew as much blood.
Mexican police documents and witnesses confirm that drug kingpins Amado and Vicente regularly traveled to El Paso without problems. Their predecessor, Rafael Aguilar Guajardo, divided his time between living in El Paso and Juarez.
The Carrillo Fuentes brothers had their father hospitalized in El Paso, and, according to Charles Bowden, author of Down by the River, the cartel once owned a bank in El Paso. Several sources say they saw Amado slap a high-level Chihuahua State law official during a dinner meeting at the Cafe Central in downtown El Paso. That official served in Governor Francisco Barrio’s administration and later worked for President Vicente Fox. Eduardo Gonzalez Quirarte, a cartel lieutenant who worked closely with drug lord Jose Juan “Azul” Esparragoza, also frequented friends in El Paso. Gonzalez, who attended Jefferson High School on the U.S. side of the border, reportedly allowed a top aide of President Ernesto Zedillo to live in one of the kingpin’s homes in Mexico City.
To cross the border unimpeded as often as they did, the drug lords had to have some form of consular or police cover. The FBI confirmed this suspicion when the agency disclosed that Amado’s brother, Vicente, kept a Mexican federal police credential at his girlfriend’s home in El Paso. The card bore the alleged signature of a former Mexican federal attorney general. The card had Vicente’s picture on it and an alias instead of his real name.
Ironically, an FBI special agent lived next door to the drug lord’s girlfriend. The agent was shocked when his fellow agents arrived at the woman’s house armed with a search warrant.
Two other murder cases linked to the drug trade were especially shocking for their brutality. In May of 2002, Deissy Salcido Rueda, of El Paso, and her cousin Eli Rueda Adame, of Juarez, were dismembered and buried in the backyard of Juarez resident Martin Guerrero Noriega. Guerrero was known as “el Brujo” (the witch), because he performed magic rituals and sold amulets.
On March 13, 2004, a Juarez judge sentenced him to fifty years in prison for the deaths. Members of Deissy’s family were threatened when they tried to get authorities to investigate other potential suspects, including a relative of Deissy’s and someone identified as “Beltran.” A story in Norte de Ciudad Juarez newspaper said revenge over a cocaine deal gone sour may have been the true motive for the slayings.
Guerrero told the Mexican judge that two people had paid him to set up Deissy and her cousin. He said he lured them to his house by offering a special magic ritual to bring them prosperity. “El Brujo” said two men grabbed and killed the cousins after they arrived at his home. He said their bodies were cut into pieces so they could fit into his small backyard grave.
Police confined their investigation to “el Brujo.” After the judge announced the sentence, Guerrero said he would rather spend fifty years in jail than tangle with the real killers. He refused to identify them.
A cocky drug dealer
The murders of three women whose bodies were discovered in 2003 in shallow graves east of Juarez sent shockwaves throughout the border city. The authorities classified their deaths as “crimes of passion,” a common euphemism for family violence. Felipe Machado Reyes, 31, a cocky drug dealer who appeared in a picture wearing purple western boots and a lime-colored shirt, was accused of ordering the slayings.
One of the victims was his wife, Candelaria Ramos Gonzalez, 22. The other two were the wife’s cousin, Mayra Alamillo Gonzalez, 20, and a friend, Miriam Garcia Solario, 22. Machado’s wife and her cousin were shot in the head. Their friend, who also was shot, actually died of asphyxiation. The medical examiner found sand in her lungs and concluded she had been buried alive.
Police said the women were killed July 23 following a heated argument between Machado and his wife at the Autotel La Fuente on Avenida Tecnologico (Panamerican Highway). The Autotel is a popular Juarez gathering place for young people from the middle and upper classes. It is also a popular hangout for drug dealers.
The place, across the street from the powerful Fuentes family compound, features a drive-in service area where customers can order drinks from parked vehicles, a motel with cheap rates for one-night stands and a clubhouse with live music and a bar. Police said the couple’s dispute escalated before they and their acquaintances left. A couple of days later, passers-by noticed the bodies in a patch of desert and notified police.
Machado, who was sought in connection with the murders, hid out in El Paso until U.S. law enforcement received a tip on his whereabouts and arrested him. Although he was wanted in Texas on drug violations, U.S. authorities promptly sent him back to Mexico to face the murder charges.
A year before the three women were slain, a hotheaded Machado had threatened the bouncers who threw him out of the Changada nightclub for being disorderly. Machado allegedly drove by later and shot up the front of the Changada as club patrons walked out. The gunfire killed a young woman who had nothing to do with the earlier scuffle. Despite eyewitness accounts, Juarez police did not arrest Machado.
But the three women’s murders in 2003 was an act so flagrant the authorities could no longer afford to overlook him. This was not always the case.
Shooting at the Vertigo
On December 7, 1997, Rosa Arellanes Garcia, 24, was shot to death inside the Vertigo nightclub in Juarez. The Vertigo is a popular nightspot among teenagers from El Paso and Southern New Mexico. Initially, Mexican authorities ruled Rosa’s death a homicide, and alleged that Victor “el Cubano” Lazcano was responsible. In September 2000, while the Mexican case was pending, U.S. authorities indicted Lazcano and three others on drug-trafficking charges. An El Paso police document had linked Lazcano and others who lived in El Paso to an El Paso police officer, who, through his lawyer, denied any wrongdoing. Lazcano was tried, convicted and served a short sentence before being sent back to Mexico to face the Vertigo homicide charge. By that time, however, Chihuahua authorities had decided that the young woman’s death was accidental. Lazcano went free.
Big and Little Shadow
“There are some death reports that the public never hears about because they are filed away in a locked cabinet,” said a Chihuahua State official familiar with the Juarez homicide investigations. “We are forbidden to discuss them with anyone.” One such case was leaked, however, and the disclosure nearly got Special Prosecutor Suly Ponce into lethal trouble. Agents in the state attorney general’s office warned Suly that she could end up in the trunk of a car because of such leaks.
The official, who provided information from the case file, said the murder of Alejandra del Castillo Holguin in 2000 was part of a bigger case that actually involved several other homicides and disappearances in late 1999 and early 2000. The account was profoundly troubling, for it laid bare the abuse of power and authority on behalf of the killers. According to investigators, Alejandra Holguin had a sister named Perla Karina who was at the heart of the case. The sisters were known for their good looks. Their mother, Martha Holguin, was a magazine editor who moved to Juarez from Hermosillo, Sonora. Once in Juarez, Perla Holguin married or lived with an older man.
U.S. investigators said the man Perla was involved with was a major drug dealer who operated east of Juarez. His nickname was “Big Shadow.” He had a young child by Perla and older children by a previous wife, including a son nicknamed “Little Shadow.” Big Shadow lavished expensive gifts on Perla and gave her a daily allowance of more than $1,000 cash. At one point, he began to suspect that she was cheating on him, and asked the family bodyguards to report to him if this was the case. Eventually, the bodyguards informed “Big Shadow” that Perla was having an affair not with a man but with a woman identified only as “Graciela.”
The news angered “Big Shadow,” who ordered Graciela’s death and had her body incinerated. Perla searched for Graciela until Big Shadow told her to stop looking because she was dead. Then Perla did the unthinkable. She avenged Graciela’s death by hiring someone to kill the powerful drug dealer. She had him buried in their backyard.
“Big Shadow’s” family began to miss the patriarch. When “Little Shadow” queried Perla about his father, she made the mistake of telling him that Mexican federal police had picked him up on drug charges. The son knew the federal police and quickly established that they were not involved. The son confronted Perla, discovered the truth and allegedly had her killed. He also moved his father’s body from the backyard grave to the family’s cemetery plot.
“Little Shadow” learned Perla’s young child was staying with Perla’s sister, Alejandra. He reportedly had the sister, who was several months pregnant, killed and took Perla’s child by “Big Shadow.”
Mauricio Zuniga, a friend of the two slain sisters, confronted “Little Shadow” about the two women’s deaths at the Changada club. Then, Mauricio turned up missing.
In the meantime, “Little Shadow” was trying to track down a large and missing sum of his father’s money. He began to look for Perla and Alejandra’s mother.
Martha Holguin, who feared she would be the next to die, abandoned any hope of recovering her grandchild and fled to the United States. Everyone was looking for her, the Mexican police, the FBI, the drug dealers.
“There were other deaths and disappearances linked to this case that will go unsolved forever,” concludes a Chihuahua State official. A former DEA officer correctly described this case as a modern Shakespearean tragedy. Although Martha Holguin was well known in Juarez press circles, a few journalists who were familiar with unreported details of the case said their editors did not allow them to write the full story. Only Alejandra Holguin’s death in March 2000 was made public.
A U.S. Consulate communiqué referenced a Mexican media account about the grisly crimes that mentioned Perla’s 1999 disappearance. A Mexican official said that unless the community gets wind of certain deaths, some bodies are taken straight to the fosa comun, the public common grave reserved for unidentified or unclaimed bodies. Vicky Caraveo, a former state official, said an unknown number of women’s bodies are buried in the city’s two common graves.
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