EL PASO, Texas — The new head of the Houston Division of the DEA brings border experience to the job in a region that is a hub for drug cartel activity and includes a largest stretch of the Texas-Mexico border.
Joseph Arabit comes to Houston from El Paso where he was in charge of the DEA office at time when rival drug cartels just across the border waged a brutal fight over a lucrative smuggling corridor.
“The murder rate in Juarez started to climb in 2008,” said Arabit recalling his first few months as special-agent-in-charge in El Paso.
The killings in Juarez could continue to climb to more than 10,000 in the five years that followed as the Sinaloa Cartel try to wrestle control away from the hometown Juarez Cartel.
The gangland-style violence included multiple massacres, beheadings and a car bomb as cartels and the street gangs they used as hired guns clashed violently.
And though El Paso remained one of the safest cities in the United States, the DEA under Arabit teamed up with local, state and other federal agencies to target the cartel criminals and hit men who crisscross the border.
“Once we had those individuals identified we did all that we could to link them to a U.S. crime they had committed in the past and then took it a step further,” he said.
He credits strong partnerships with law enforcement agencies in Mexico for helping with investigations.
“We spent a considerable amount of time identifying assassins in Mexico,” said Arabit, who wants to expand the strategy elsewhere. The Border Regional Violence strategy led to the indictment, arrest and conviction of several cartel and gang leaders in the U.S.
Among those brought to justice was Arturo Gallegos Castrellon, a Barrio Azteca gang leader who ordered the killings of three people linked the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez in March 2010.
The victims included Lesley Enriquez, a pregnant consulate employee and her husband Arthur Redelfs, an El Paso County Sheriff’s detention officer. They were gunned down in their car just blocks from the border in broad daylight. Their baby girl strapped into a child seat in the back survived the attack.
Jorge Alberto Salcido Ceniceros, the husband of another consulate employee was killed in a separate vehicle. All were leaving a children’s party.
Gallegos Castrellon was convicted in February and is serving 10 life sentences for the murders.
“Professionally, it’s been a great assignment. It’s been the highlight of my career,” said Arabit of his time in El Paso.
It’s a career that spans more than 25 years and both sides of the border. Arabit, a former San Antonio police officer, decided to become an agent after working on a DEA task force.
He speaks Spanish and his assignments include work for the DEA in Sinaloa.
He takes over the Houston DEA division which includes the Texas-Mexico border from the Rio Grande Valley to Eagle Pass. The region borders the troubled state Tamaulipas.
In the border city Reynosa, residents report running gun battles, grenades, and “narco-blocades” of streets. The local government warned people to take precautions this week.
The escalating violence comes as major cartels in that part of northern Mexico splinter into smaller groups.
“With different people in the Gulf Cartel and Zetas cartel either going to jail or killed, there are folks trying to vie for those positions and that creates turmoil — very similar to the turmoil we saw in Juarez in 2008 to 2010,” said Arabit.
And there are the same concerns on the Texas side about cartel and organized crime. He wants to expand a program the DEA started in El Paso to encourage the public to report drug related crime anonymously by text.
“We’ve had an anonymous texting program for a couple of years now and we’re seeing a great response. It’s just a different way for the community to interact with us,” said Arabit.
Some of those tips have helped the DEA seize drugs, guns and identify stash houses.
But at the same time much of the DEA focus has been on narcotics smuggling from Mexico, dangerous new drugs have gained in ground in the U.S.
The DEA this week raided synthetic drug manufacturers in 29 states. Among the potent drugs seized, synthetic marijuana known as “K2” blamed for more than 120 deadly overdoses in Texas.
Several of the deaths were in Austin, part of the DEA division Arabit will oversee.
“The last thing in the world I thought I’d be dealing with is a problem related to synthetic drugs,” said Arabit.