Lieutenant for the Arellano-Felix Mexican drug cartel pleads guilty to leading a major drug trafficking enterprise and conspiracy to commit murder in furtherance of the enterprise


Date: July 13, 2023


FARGO — United States Attorney Mac Schneider, District of North Dakota, announced that on July 13, 2023, Juan Sillas-Rocha of Tijuana, Mexico, plead guilty to Conspiracy to Distribute a Controlled Substance, Continuing Criminal Enterprise, and Conspiracy to Commit Murder in Furtherance of the Continuing Criminal Enterprise before Chief Judge Peter Welte in Fargo, North Dakota. Sentencing will be scheduled at a later time.

On March 31, 2011, Sillas-Rocha was indicted by a grand jury in North Dakota in a Superseding Indictment alleging three counts: 1) Conspiracy to Distribute Controlled Substance; 2) Continuing Criminal Enterprise; and 3) Conspiracy to Commit Murder in Furtherance of the Continuing Criminal Enterprise.

Sillas-Rocha was arrested on November 4, 2011, in Tijuana, Mexico and served with a provisional arrest warrant issued by a court in Mexico which started the extradition process. On September 8, 2022, after 11 years of litigation in Mexico, Sillas-Rocha was extradited to the United States and made his initial appearance in North Dakota on September 9, 2022. The Department of Justice's Office of International Affairs, and the U.S Attorney's Office in North Dakota played a significant role in securing this extradition.

As outlined at the plea hearing today before Judge Welte, an investigation was initiated in 2004 in Fargo, North Dakota, into the drug-trafficking activities of local drug dealers. This was designated an OCDETF case named "Operation Speed Racer." The investigation revealed that from January 2002 until December of 2005, Jorge Arandas, a/k/a Sneaky, supervised a continuing criminal enterprise responsible for transporting large quantities of methamphetamine, cocaine, and marijuana to North Dakota and Minnesota from Washington, California, and Mexico. Arandas was supplied by Juan Sillas-Rocha or employees of Sillas-Rocha.

Sillas-Rocha was a distributor for the Arellano-Felix Organization (AFO) and was supervised directly by Arturo Villareal Heredia, a/k/a El Nalgon, who worked for Javier Francisco Arellano-Felix, a/k/a El Tigrillo. Both Villareal Heredia and Arellano-Felix were prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of California. In 2005, Arandas arranged a 10-pound shipment of methamphetamine into the United States. Five pounds landed in Washington state and 5 pounds were delivered to Lee Avila at the West Acres Mall in Fargo. Lee Avila failed to pay for the drugs and members of the Arandas organization murdered Lee Avila in June of 2005, shooting him nine times in the presence of two small children. All five participants in the homicide pled guilty for their roles in this murder in furtherance of the continuing criminal enterprise. The participants in the homicide received the following sentences:

  • Gabriel Martinez - Life
  • Jorge Arandas - 40 years
  • Michael Petzold - 30 years
  • Alan Wessels - 23 years 
  • Martin Carrillo - 20 years

After the murder, Arandas read the article in the Fargo Forum newspaper about the homicide to Sillas-Rocha and he gave Arandas an extension to pay for the shipment.

After the arrest of Javier Arellano-Felix in 2006, his nephew, Fernando Sanchez-Arellano, a/k/a El Ingeniero, assumed control of the AFO. Under the leadership of Fernando Sanchez-Arellano, Sillas-Rocha became a very powerful lieutenant in the cartel, controlling cells that were responsible for drug trafficking, armed conflicts with rival cartels, kidnappings and numerous murders. Some of the people Sillas-Rocha was supervising are listed in the Superseding Indictment and establishes "5 or more people supervised". This AFO enterprise generated millions of dollars and would meet the definition of "substantial income." The enterprise moved more than 15 kilograms of a mixture of methamphetamine, in excess of 5,000 grams of cocaine and in excess of 1000 kilograms of marijuana.

Sillas-Rocha continued his work for the cartel until his arrest in November 2011 but would acknowledge committing overt acts in furtherance of the conspiracy and CCE after 2011, while incarcerated in Mexico.

In February 2011, Sillas-Rocha ordered two individuals in California to be murdered for retribution for the alleged kidnapping and murder of a drug smuggler associated with Sillas-Rocha. Agents of the California Department of Justice/California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement (BNE) through the use of a confidential informant, were able to obtain recorded phone calls and controlled meetings with Sillas-Rocha and co-conspirators. During the course of the investigation, Sillas-Rocha ordered the murder of at least two intended victims who are identified by initials in the Superseding Indictment. After providing the confidential informant with photos and the address of the intended victims, three co-conspirators were arrested and charged in San Diego County with Conspiracy to Commit Murder. Arrested were Jorge Sillas, the brother of Sillas-Rocha, Victor Magana, and Danny Cepallo. All three defendants plead guilty in state court in San Diego and received the following prison sentences:

  • Jorge Sillas – 21 years
  • Victor Magana – 15 years
  • Danny Cepallo – 5 years

As part of "Operation Speed Racer", 66 defendants were charged on 18 separate indictments and with the defendant's guilty plea today it brings this19-year investigation to a conclusion.

"The crimes that led to this guilty plea affected public safety in North Dakota, and it is therefore fitting that this individual now faces justice in a federal courthouse in Fargo," said Mac Schneider, United States Attorney for the District of North Dakota. "This result is a great example of what can be achieved when local, state, federal, and international law enforcement work together across jurisdictional lines. I congratulate our prosecution team and their law enforcement partners on this outcome, which would not have been possible without their perseverance and determination."

"The prosecution, extradition, and now conviction, of Juan Sillas Rocha, brings to an end over a decade of tireless, coordinated effort by investigators and prosecutors from Fargo, North Dakota and San Diego, California and sends a powerful message that violence perpetrated or orchestrated by persons at the highest levels of Mexican drug trafficking organizations against persons in the United States will not go unanswered," said San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan. "I want to express my appreciation for the commitment to public safety and the pursuit of justice demonstrated by our colleagues in North Dakota. "

"Today's guilty verdict by an individual indicted 12 years ago demonstrates that regardless of the amount of time lapsed, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and its state, local and fellow federal partners, will hold drug traffickers accountable for the significant damage they have inflicted on our communities," DEA Omaha Division Special Agent in Charge Justin C. King said.

"The West Fargo Police Department is proud to have been a partner agency in the investigation of 'Operation Speed Racer,'" said Denis Otterness, Chief of Police. "This case exemplifies the power of mutual aid between multiple law enforcement agencies in helping to bring drug traffickers to justice and the additional benefit of removing large quantities of controlled substances from our communities. I would like to thank all of the law enforcement officers involved for their hard work, perseverance and dedication over the course of this 19-year investigation."

This case was investigated by the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation, DEA, Homeland Security Investigations, United States Marshal's Service, North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation, Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, Grand Forks Narcotics Task Force, the East Grand Forks Police Department, West Fargo Police Department, Clay County Sheriff's Office (MN), California Department of Justice, San Diego County District Attorney's Office, Fargo Police Department, Moorhead Police Department and the Polk County Attorney's Office (MN).

The case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher C. Myers with the assistance of Deputy District Attorney James Fontaine of the San Diego District Attorney's Office. The Justice Department's Office of International Affairs worked with law enforcement partners in Mexico to secure the arrest and extradition of Sillas-Rocha.