MEXICO CITY (AP) -- The reputed leader of one of Mexico's most violent drug cartels was extradited to the United States on Friday to face charges there, the Mexican Attorney General's Office announced.
Benjamin Arellano Felix, who allegedly led the Tijuana cartel, is one of the highest-profile drug suspects to be extradited under the administration of President Felipe Calderon. Calderon sent reputed Gulf cartel leader Osiel Cardenas to the U.S. in 2007.
Arellano Felix, along with at least three brothers, allegedly led the Tijuana cartel beginning in the 1980s until his arrest in central Mexico in 2002. He faced drug-trafficking charges both in Mexico and the U.S.
In 2003, he and his brothers were indicted on drug-trafficking charges in San Diego, Ca., across the border from Tijuana. In 2007, Mexico approved a U.S. request for his extradition.
"He led the cartel at the height of its power," the Attorney General's Office said in a statement. "He was also who kept the family together."
Mexican federal agents handed Arellano Felix over to U.S. Marshals at an airport on the outskirts of Mexico City on Friday, the statement said.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has called the Tijuana cartel, which smuggles cocaine and marijuana into the U.S. from northwestern Mexico, one of the largest, most violent criminal organizations in the country. The cartel was featured in the 2001 movie "Traffic."
The Tijuana cartel bribed soldiers and prosecutors to protect high-ranking cartel members and drug shipments, authorities say. In recent years, however, it has been weakened by the rival Sinaloa drug gang.
Mexican authorities killed Ramon Arellano Felix in a shootout in the Pacific resort city of Mazatlan in February 2002, a month before Benjamin Arellano Felix was captured in the central state of Puebla.
Ramon was the enforcer, while Benjamin was the mastermind who possessed "the ultimate decision-making authority," according to the 2003 U.S. federal indictment.
While Ramon rode Harley-Davidson motorcycles, wore mink coats, and frequented the best nightclubs, Benjamin was a reserved businessman who tried to avoid public shows of violence.
It was one of the brothers' key lieutenants, Arturo "Kitty" Paez, who helped U.S. authorities build their case against the Arellano Felixes.
Paez also led U.S. officials to brother Javier Arellano Felix, who was captured in an August 2006 raid on a sportfishing yacht off Mexico's Baja California coast. Javier pleaded guilty in San Diego to drug charges and was sentenced to life in prison in 2007.
Eduardo Arellano Felix was captured by Mexican authorities in 2008. He was also indicted in San Diego, and proceedings to extradite him from Mexico to the U.S. are under way.
Fernando Sanchez Arellano, a nephew of the brothers known as "the Engineer," now heads the cartel, authorities say. The Mexican Attorney General's Office is offering a reward of $2.5 million (30 million pesos) for information leading to his capture.
More than 34,600 people have been killed in drug-related violence throughout Mexico since December 2006, when Calderon launched a military-led offensive against the cartels.
The president has been more willing than many of his predecessors to extradite drug lords to the United States. His administration has sent 415 people north of the border, including Cardenas, who was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison last year.
In the past, Mexican authorities had insisted on prosecuting their own criminals at home. They gradually changed their position as a way to stop cartel leaders from communicating with their cohorts from behind bars and from staging prison escapes.
Also Friday, the Mexican army announced the rescue of 52 illegal migrants kidnapped by unidentified drug gangs in Reynosa, a border city across from McAllen, Texas.
Soldiers carried out the operation early Friday in a residential neighborhood after they received an anonymous tip, the army said in a statement.
Among those freed were 34 Hondurans, 12 Guatemalans, five Salvadorans and a Nicaraguan.
In the past two weeks, authorities have rescued 171 people in Reynosa who were kidnapped before trying to cross into the United States. Authorities blamed the Gulf cartel for the kidnapping of 68 victims who were rescued last week.