Last brother from Mexico's Arellano Felix cartel pleads not guilty

SAN DIEGO Tue Sep 4, 2012 5:32pm EDT

1 of 3. Eduardo Arellano Felix is shown arriving with agents after being extradited from Mexico in this undated Drug Enforcement Administration handout photo released to Reuters September 4, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/DEA/Handout

SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - Accused Mexican drug kingpin Eduardo Arellano Felix, whose Tijuana-based cartel was dramatized in the Oscar-winning film "Traffic," pleaded not guilty to federal drug charges on Tuesday in his first court appearance since extradition to the United States.

Arellano Felix, 55, the fourth brother from the reputed crime family to be taken into U.S. custody, arrived in California on Friday to face charges of racketeering, money laundering and conspiracy to distribute and import marijuana and cocaine.

During a brief hearing in U.S. District Court in San Diego, a public defender assigned to the case entered not guilty pleas on his behalf to all charges. He faces up to 140 years in prison if convicted.

Arellano Felix, shackled and dressed in an orange jumpsuit, sat expressionless and silent with his hands folded during the proceedings, surrounded by five federal marshals. He nodded in the affirmative when asked by the judge if he understood the charges against him.

A bail hearing was set for Friday.

Arellano Felix, arrested in Mexico in 2008 following a gun battle with Mexican special forces, is accused of helping run one of Mexico's biggest trafficking cartels with several of his brothers.

He is described in an indictment as a "senior adviser" to his brother, Benjamin, the former head of the organization, who pleaded guilty in federal court to drug trafficking, money laundering and racketeering in January.

At the height of its power in the 1990s, the Arellano Felix organization was known to smuggle hundreds of millions of dollars in narcotics through a 100-mile-wide corridor stretching from Tijuana, south of San Diego, to Mexicali, south of Calexico, California. The cartel also was alleged to be behind hundreds of murders in Tijuana and across Mexico.

The brothers gained an added measure of international notoriety when the Tijuana cartel and its battle with the rival Juarez cartel were depicted in the 2000 film "Traffic," which earned four Oscars, including the Academy Award for best director for Steven Soderbergh.

But the family was hit hard by U.S. and Mexican authorities in the 2000s. Ramon Arellano Felix, the cartel's flamboyant enforcer, was killed in a shootout with police in 2002. Brothers Benjamin and Francisco Javier were captured in 2002 and 2006, respectively, and are now serving time in U.S. prisons.

An older brother, Francisco Rafael, was arrested, indicted and turned over to the United States in the early 1980s. He served six years for selling cocaine and was deported back to Mexico.

With the downfall of the Arellano Felix brothers, the rival Sinaloa cartel run by Mexico's most-wanted man, Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman, has largely taken over the Tijuana cartel's valuable turf.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon has extradited record numbers of reputed drug kingpins to the United States while Mexican police and soldiers have rounded up thousands of hit men and smugglers.

However, the offensive has led to more violence, with more than 55,000 drug-related murders during Calderon's six-year term. President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto will take power in December and has promised to rapidly reduce the murder rate.

(Editing by Steve Gorman, Cynthia Johnston and Jackie Frank)