Skip to main content
July 21, 2023St. Paul, MN, United StatesNarcotics

Arellano-Felix Cartel lieutenant pleads guilty to murder conspiracy, leading trafficking enterprise

ST. PAUL, Minn. — U.S. Attorney Mac Schneider for the District of North Dakota announced that Juan Sillas-Rocha, 45, of Tijuana, Mexico, pleaded 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, on July 13. The court will schedule sentencing at a later date.

On March 31, 2011, Sillas-Rocha was indicted by a grand jury in North Dakota in a superseding indictment alleging the three crimes.

Authorities arrested Sillas-Rocha on Nov. 4, 2011, in Tijuana and served him with a provisional arrest warrant issued by a court in Mexico, which started the extradition process. On Sept. 8, 2022, after 11 years of litigation in Mexico, officials extradited Sillas-Rocha to the United States. He made his initial appearance in North Dakota on Sept. 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 the extradition.

In 2004, authorities initiated an investigation into the drug-trafficking activities of Fargo drug dealers. The Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force case, dubbed Operation Speed Racer, revealed that from January 2002 until December 2005, Jorge Arandas aka 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. Sillas-Rocha or his employees supplied Arandas.

Sillas-Rocha was a distributor for the Arellano-Felix Organization and was supervised directly by Arturo Villareal Heredia aka El Nalgon, who worked for Javier Francisco Arellano-Felix aka El Tigrillo. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California prosecuted Villareal Heredia and Arellano-Felix. Five people who participated in a related homicide pleaded guilty for their roles in the murder in furtherance of the continuing criminal enterprise. Gabriel Martinez received a life sentence, while Arandas was sentenced to 40 years. Michael Petzold, Alan Wessels and Martin Carillo received sentences of 30 years, 23 years and 20 years, respectively.

After Arellano-Felix’s arrest in 2006, his nephew, Fernando Sanchez-Arellano aka El Ingeniero assumed control of the Arellano-Felix Organization. Under Sanchez-Arrelano’s leadership, 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.

Sillas-Rocha continued working for the cartel until his arrest in November 2011. He acknowledged committing overt acts in furtherance of the conspiracy and continuing criminal enterprise after 2011, while he was incarcerated in Mexico.

In February 2011, Sillas-Rocha ordered the murders of two people in California for retribution for the alleged kidnapping and murder of a drug smuggler associated with Sillas-Rocha. Three co-conspirators were arrested and charged in San Diego County with conspiracy to commit murder. Arrested were Sillas-Rocha’s brother, Jorge Sillas, Victor Magana and Danny Cepallo. All three defendants pleaded guilty in state court in San Diego. Sillas received a 21-year sentence, while Magana and Cepallo received 15 and five years, respectively.

As part of Operation Speed Racer, 66 defendants were charged in 18 separate indictments. With Sillas-Rocha’s July 13 guilty plea, the investigation is closed.

“The outstanding work and cooperation by the prosecutors, investigators and law enforcement partners that went into the conviction of Sillas-Rocha is a testament to their invaluable role in keeping our communities safe,” said HSI St. Paul Special Agent in Charge Jamie Holt. “The dangerous people and organizations involved in this case affect our communities in many harmful ways. I want to thank all our involved local, state and international law enforcement agencies for their tireless dedication to ensuring the safety of our communities. And thank you to the HSI Office of International Operations for assisting the facilitation of Sillas-Rocha’s extradition to the United States.”

“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 U.S. Attorney for the District of North Dakota Mac Schneider. “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 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 Chief of Police Denis Otterness. “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 DEA, HSI St. Paul, IRS Criminal Investigation, the U.S. Marshals Service, the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, the Grand Forks Narcotics Task Force, the East Grand Forks Police Department, the West Fargo Police Department, the Clay County (Minnesota) Sheriff’s Office, the California Department of Justice, the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office, the Fargo Police Department, the Moorhead Police Department and the Polk County (Minnesota) Attorney’s Office.

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

HSI St. Paul oversees suboffices in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. HSI is the principal investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), responsible for investigating transnational crime and threats, specifically those criminal organizations that exploit the global infrastructure through which international trade, travel and finance move. HSI’s workforce of more than 8,700 employees consists of more than 6,000 special agents assigned to 237 cities throughout the United States, and 93 overseas locations in 56 countries. HSI’s international presence represents DHS’s largest investigative law enforcement presence abroad and one of the largest international footprints in U.S. law enforcement.

Members of the public can report crimes and suspicious activity 24/7 by dialing 866-347-2423.

Learn more about HSI’s mission to increase public safety in your community on Twitter @HSISaintPaul.

Updated: 07/21/2023