Surenos and Cartels - The Story of Logan Heights

Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo was a man of the cloth, respected by the Catholic majority of his country.  As such, Cardinal Ocampo had to concern himself with the spiritual well being of Mexico and the daily business of the Catholic Church.  As he was chauffeured into the Guadalajara Airport on May 24, 1993, the gangs that plagued Southern California were probably among the furthest things from his mind.   The Cardinal was not oblivious to the violence associated with Mexico’s drug cartels.  He was acutely aware of the effect that the cartels brought to his country and had publicly spoken out against them despite the inherent danger of doing so.  As his Town Car carried him through the airport grounds, he was likely focused on his work, his travels or something else of more immediate concern than drug-related violence.  He may never even have noticed them; the group of armed men approaching his car from different directions.  He may not have heard the first volley of gunfire, even though some accounts say it was fired from as close as six feet from where he sat.  But whatever his final thoughts were, it is almost certain that he wasn’t thinking about Sureño gangs in the moments before he died.


Having been in existence since the 1960s, the reputation of the Logan Heights Varrio extended well beyond their San Diego roots.  According to some accounts, a group of several Chicano youth, including members of other smaller varrios, united in what is now the area of Chicano Park in Southeast San Diego.  Chicano Park, built in the early 1970s, lies underneath the Coronado Bridge and came into existence when local activists pushed for the land to be used by the community. The pillars that support the bridge on the Logan side are covered with dozens of murals detailing Mexican culture and local history.  The gang adopted the name of the immediate area located just east of the park; Logan Heights.  Many car club members and early members of the gang would congregate in the park or at nearby businesses and residences.  One such residence, which is visible from Chicano Park, stands out from others because of the exterior staircase which was painted bright red.  This structure was the origin of one of the original clique names as the Logan Heights Varrio grew and divided – Red Steps. 


Like many Sureño gangs, Barrio Logan - known to many gang members as Varrio Logan Heights - was known for drug trafficking, murder and other violent crimes.  According to an authority on the Logan Heights gang, during the 1970s and 80s, members of Logan Heights purchased a drug called PCP from gangs in the Greater Los Angeles area cities of Hawthorne and Compton, CA, by the gallon and sold it in Memorial Park and Chicano Park in the form of “dips”, “pours”, and “lovelies”.  In the 1980s and 90s, Logan Heights members also expanded into methamphetamine sales.  The most defining moment for Varrio Logan Heights, however, came from their association with larger, more powerful criminal organizations in Mexico and a gruesome murder that was shocking even in a city plagued with cartel violence and almost daily drug-related homicides.


In 1989, Logan Heights member David Barron formed an alliance with members of the Arellano-Felix Drug Organization – also known as the Tijuana Cartel – while incarcerated in a federal prison in Phoenix, Arizona.  David, known as “Popeye” to fellow gang member, began smuggling cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana into the United States for the Arellano-Felix Organization (AFO) and eventually began serving as a bodyguard for the Arellano-Felix brothers. 


On November 8, 1992, Barron saved several upper-echelon AFO members by helping them escape an ambush by Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman in Puerta Vallarta.  Following the attack, Benjamin Arellano-Felix asked Barron to head his security detail and beef up the organization’s security in general.   After gaining the favor of the Arellano-Felix brothers, the Tijuana Cartel began supplying cocaine and other drugs across the border to other Logan Heights Varrio members, who would in turn sell the drugs in the United States in cooperation with the cartel.  But drug sales were not the only business dealings between Logan Heights and the Arellano-Felix Organization.  By late 1992, Barron and other Logan Heights members began traveling to Tijuana regularly where they were trained by Cartel members and employed as sicarios, or contract killers.  They assassinated members of rival drug trafficking organizations, acted as security for the Tijuana Cartel’s business interests and leaders, and committed other acts of violence.  In 1993, however, their actions would bring unwanted trouble to the Arellano-Felix Organization and would force the government of Mexico to take a stronger stance against the narco-trafficantes.


In retaliation for direct attacks on the Arellano-Felix brothers, David Barron and his sicarios planned to assassinate their most prominent target to date; Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman.  On May 24, 1993, Barron received information that Chapo Guzman would be at the airport in Guadalajara.  He was told about the vehicle in which Guzman would be traveling – a white Mercury Grand Marquis – and the approximate time that he would be there.  Confident in the intelligence they were given, Barron’s team planned to ambush Guzman as his vehicle traveled through the airport and secure victory in the war between the Arellano-Felix Organization and the Sinaloa Cartel.  They armed themselves, took up strategic positions on the airport grounds, and waited.   When the car was spotted, the Logan Heights members approached and opened fire, by some accounts from as close as only a few feet away.  When the gunfire stopped almost half a dozen civilians had been killed including the occupant of the town car, Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo. 


The target of the attack, Chapo Guzman, may not even have been at the airport at the time of the attack.  Some believe that Guzman himself had planted the intelligence that led Barron to carry out the attack.  Others believe that the Cardinal was the actual target because he spoke out against the cartel violence that plagued Mexico.  The facts seem to support that Guzman was the intended target of this attack and that the only contribution the Cardinal made to his murder was to be the passenger in a white town car.


In the aftermath of Cardinal Ocampos murder authorities in both Mexico and the United States became aware of the direct connection between Varrio Logan Heights and the Arellano-Felix Organization.   Some Logan Heights members who had been involved in the murder of the Cardinal returned to San Diego to avoid Mexican authorities, bringing with them the military training they had gained from the Arellano-Felix Organization.  One officer who responded to several gang-related shootings in San Diego recalled, At a time when we were seeing shootings with revolvers and an occasional semi-automatic firearm, we were now seeing shootings with .223 caliber and 7.62 caliber weapons.  Shooting scenes revealed 60 or 70 expended shell casings scattered about, and two or three victims at a time”  Federal and local authorities in Mexico, who were often known for turning a blind eye to cartel activities out of a sense of survival, now faced pressure to be seen taking action against the cartels, no matter how insignificant or symbolic the action would be.  Authorities in the United States, now aware that Varrio Logan Heights played an important role in the international drug trafficking of the Tijuana Cartel, targeted significant members of Logan Heights as well as cartel members and associates operating in the United States.  Over a period of two decades, both governments have greatly diminished the Arellano-Felix Organization and the Logan Heights Gang – often working together to do so. 


With the Arellano-Felix Organization somewhat weakened by arrests and murders of key members, Varrio Logan Heights has lost much of its international notoriety.  Their association with the Tijuana Cartel, however, has remained constant and strong since Barron first began working for them in 1989.  Today, the primarily Chicano gang has some documented presence in Las Vegas, Denver, Minneapolis, Tacoma, and other cities; usually associated with drug trafficking.  They grow, they expand, and they find themselves in previously unfamiliar territory in violent conflict with other gangs.  There are also several Logan Heights members in high-level positions within the Tijuana Cartel.  But true to their roots, members young and old can still be found congregating in and around Chicano Park on the Southeast side of the city - the original territory of Varrio Logan Heights Red Steps.