Authorities accused Arellano-Felix, 36, of being the enforcer for the gang named after – and run by – his family, reports CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker. Authorities believe he ordered the decapitation of three men – two of them police officers – south of Tijuana this summer.
He was captured when the crew of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Monsoon boarded a U.S.-registered sport fishing boat at 9 a.m. Monday about 15 miles off the coast of Mexico's Baja California peninsula, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen told a news conference.
During the news conference, one U.S. drug enforcement official said, "We've taken the head off the snake," reports CBS News correspondent Teri Okita.
Michael Braun, chief of operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration added that agents discovered Arellano-Felix's fishing plans and asked the Coast Guard to seize the boat in international waters.
"This is a huge blow" to one of the three largest Mexican drug cartels, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty said. But, he said, "much more remains to be done."
Braun said, "We're piling on this organization because they are extremely vulnerable right now."
The gang was once led by seven brothers and four sisters, but Braun noted that Javier's brother Ramon was killed in a shootout with police in 2002, his brother Benjamin is in a Mexican prison and brother Eduardo, while at large in Mexico, is not considered "capable of leading the organization at this time."
"That's not to say that there aren't one or more others capable of stepping up and running it," Braun said.
The Cutter Monsoon is towing the fishing boat, the Dock Holiday, back to San Diego where DEA agents will formally arrest Arellano-Felix and others among the eight adults and three juveniles who were captured on board.
Arellano-Felix is wanted in both the United States and Mexico for his role as leader of the violent and sophisticated Tijuana-based Arellano-Felix gang, which McNulty said was blamed in a 2003 U.S. indictment for 20 murders in the United States and Mexico.
One law enforcement official said two suspected assassins for the Arellano-Felix gang were among those aboard the Dock Holiday. He requested anonymity because he was speaking before officials officially released the list of passengers.
The tunnels ended in a warehouse in San Diego's Otay Mesa industrial district. The DEA says the gang is responsible for the smuggling of tons of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines over the last decade.
Braun said the Arellano-Felix gang was involved in smuggling multiple tons of cocaine from all three major cocaine-producing countries in Latin America — Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. McNulty said the gang received some cocaine from FARC, a leftist revolutionary guerrilla group in Colombia.
Federal drug agents began preparing for the operation 14 months ago after learning that Arellano-Felix was planning to go fishing aboard the vessel off La Paz, Mexico, the U.S. officials announced. The agents enlisted the help of the Coast Guard in mounting the operation and were assisted throughout by Mexican law enforcement officers, McNulty said.
Arellano-Felix was among 11 individuals named in a federal indictment unsealed in California in July 2003. The indictment charged racketeering and money laundering and drug trafficking conspiracies. It sought forfeiture of $300 million in illegal profits. Some of the counts carried maximum penalties of life in prison.
The State Department has offered $5 million rewards for the capture of Javier or his brother Eduardo. McNulty said there was no indication whether anyone would receive the award for Javier's capture.
Javier Arellano-Felix was charged in Mexico in 1993 with conspiring to assassinate Roman Catholic Cardinal Juan Posadas Ocampo, U.S. officials said.
The suspected Arellano-Felix assassins captured with Javier are identified as Arturo Villareal-Heredia and Marco "El Catoro" Fernandez, the law enforcement official said.