While the Mexican government congratulates itself for the arrest of a reputed mastermind behind the high-profile slaying of two employees of the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juárez, U.S. officials are saying little.
Arturo Gallegos Castrellón was paraded Sunday in front of Mexican media outlets — against the backdrop of masked Mexican federal police officers — and described as a leader of Los Aztecas, a prison gang that operates at the behest of La Línea, the enforcement arm of the Juárez cartel, both in that city and across the border in El Paso. Gallegos allegedly confessed to ordering the murder of Lesley Enriquez, an American citizen and U.S. consulate employee who was gunned down in March. She was killed alongside her husband, Arthur Redelfs, an El Paso County Sheriff’s Department employee. Jorge Alberto Salcido Ceniceros, whose wife also worked at the consulate, was also killed in an attack on a vehicle similar to the white SUV driven by the couple in what law enforcement assumed was a case of mistaken identity.
In a statement from the Mexican government’s Secretaría de Seguridad Pública, Gallegos was said to have taken responsibility for ordering those murders. He also allegedly claimed to be involved in at least 80 percent of the slayings in Juárez during the past 15 months, including the murders of five federal officers and the January massacre of 15 teenagers at a party. The youths were members of a local football team who authorities say were mistaken for members of Los Aztecas' rival gang, the Artistas Asesinos.
Gallegos, known by his moniker “El Farmero,” was arrested alongside Juarenses Carlos Rodríguez Ramírez and Gisela Ornelas Núñez, who allegedly also dealt drugs in the border cities. Gallegos had previously served time in a U.S. prison on drug charges, according to the statement.
In a city where the daily death tolls exceed a half-dozen on what some consider an average day, the consulate murders sparked outrage from local, state and federal leaders, who said the attack highlighted the vulnerability of Americans in the area. As a result, the U.S. Embassy in May reported that “approximately 200 U.S. law enforcement agents [were] deployed to El Paso to support Mexican investigation into three murders associated with the U.S. consulate in Juárez."
On Monday, however, the FBI in El Paso remained silent, refusing to comment after citing a Department of Justice mandate that information about ongoing investigations not be released. The El Paso County Sheriff's Department said it had no official comment on the news until the FBI confirmed it. El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles had previously refuted allegations that Redelfs was targeted because of his actions as a jailer, telling the El Paso Times in April that Mexican claims that the deputy, a 10-year veteran of the department, was targeted for mistreating inmates were false.
The U.S. Consulate’s office, when asked about the legitimacy of Gallegos’ arrest, would only say that because Gallegos is a Mexican and committed crimes in Mexico, “the Mexican law enforcement authorities have the lead on the investigation, arrest, and detention.”
Jose Ramon Salinas, a spokesman for the Mexican federal police, says he had no knowledge of whether U.S. authorities aided in the investigation of or the arrest of Gallegos.
If Gallegos confessed to ordering the murders, he wouldn’t be the first cartel bigwig to do so this year. In July, the government announced that another alleged Azteca gang member, Jesus Ernesto Chavez Castillo, known as “El Camello,” confessed to ordering the March slayings, alleging Enriquez was facilitating visas for the Juárez cartel’s rivals, the Sinaloa cartel. The multiple confessions and Mexico’s growing reputation as a lawless nation could cast doubts on the legitimacy of the arrests.
Even if they're found to have a legal basis, there still exists a chance that the alleged masterminds could circumvent the criminal justice system. “The question is will there be an actual trial, will there be a process by which the evidence is reviewed publicly? That’s where it becomes tricky,” says Eric Olson, a senior adviser at the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.
In Mexico, Olson says, 20 to 25 crimes per 100 are reported. Of those, there is an investigation of fewer than five, and fewer than two are prosecuted, and fewer still are brought to trial — which is why there's no telling what could happen to Gallegos and the others. But, he continues, there should be no rush to judgment on whether this is just posturing by Mexican officials. The murders, he says, attracted a lot of attention and even prompted a visit by Mexican President Felipe Calderón, who traveled to Juárez to speak with relatives of some of the slain teenagers.
“All prosecutors everywhere pick up people and claim they have got the guy. That's their job, right? So it’s not unusual that they would have done that,” Olson says. “They have been investigating these cases, so I wouldn’t just say Mexican prosecutors are corrupt and therefore this is wrong. I think the question really is, will it be tried in the open trial system in Chihuahua or will it be handled behind the scenes? Then it becomes a real question as to the legitimacy of it.”
Asked if the arrest will calm the situation in Juárez, which is approaching 7,000 homicides since 2008, he said, simply, no.
"As important as this is, I don’t think it’s going to turn the tide or be the straw that broke the camel’s back for the cartels operating in Juárez," he says. "It’s a many-headed monster. You lop off one and more emerge."