Mexico arrests Tijuana drug cartel leader during Mexico-Croatia match

View of a screen displaying images of Fernando Sanchez Arellano, who was arrested while watching Mexico's World Cup match vs. Croatia.

ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images

MEXICO CITY —

The head of the once-mighty Tijuana-based Arellano Felix drug cartel was arrested at a home while watching the telecast of Mexico’s soccer team playing in the World Cup, federal officials said Tuesday.

Federal police chief Monte Alejandro Rubido said Fernando Sanchez Arellano was detained in the border city of Tijuana on Monday and was expected to be brought to Mexico City sometime Tuesday.

Sanchez Arellano had $100,000 in cash when he was arrested, Rubido said, but gave no other details at a news briefing at which he didn’t take questions.

Journalists were shown photographs of Sanchez Arellano in a green soccer jersey and with his cheeks painted with green, white and red, the colors of the Mexican flag. But he couldn’t celebrate Mexico’s 3 -1 victory over Croatia because he was arrested by soldiers before the game ended, a federal official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk to the media.

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Sanchez Arellano inherited leadership of the Arellano Felix cartel from his uncle, Javier Arellano Felix, who was arrested by the U.S. Coast Guard in international waters off Mexico’s Baja California in 2006. The uncle later was sentenced in San Diego to 40 years in federal prison.

Within two years, a renegade lieutenant, Teodoro Garcia Simental, made a power play and set off a bloodbath that turned Tijuana into one of Mexico’s most violent cities, plagued by daytime shootouts, beheadings and mutilated corpses hanging from freeway bridges.

Sanchez Arellano, known as "The Engineer," was badly weakened after his rival was arrested in 2010, which created an opening for the Sinaloa cartel to quietly gain control of Tijuana’s underworld and its coveted smuggling corridor to San Diego. The Sinaloa cartel has made its mark in the area with cross-border drug tunnels, large-scale smuggling of methamphetamine at San Diego border crossings and marijuana-laden boats that motor up the Pacific coast to California.