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  1. chillinwill
    Distribution Influx Means Drug Houses Could Be Next Door

    No one would have wanted Balmer Valencia Bernabe for a neighbor if they had known how he earned a living. And no one did know until 6:30 a.m. on Oct. 21.

    Ovella Thompson awakened that Wednesday morning to the sound of federal agents breaking down the door at a creme-colored brick home across the street. Their search warrant alleged that Bernabe, an illegal Mexican immigrant, used the Garland "stash house" near Lake Ray Hubbard to store methamphetamine, vehicles, cash and ledgers documenting his business dealings.

    Twenty miles away, at approximately the same minute, a young father named Rafael awakened in his Love Field-area home and pulled back the curtains to watch federal agents bust into a house across the street and arrest Bernabe. "You could hear the cops screaming," recalled Rafael, who asked that his last name not be used. "Who could have known? He and his wife have kids. He looked like a normal guy."

    Bernabe, at age 34, is anything but a normal guy.

    Although he has pleaded not guilty to drug charges, federal investigators say he exemplifies how Mexican drug cartels have extended their operations to the retail level in the United States.

    Once upon a time, the cartels were content to stay in Mexico and wholesale their drugs to Americans willing to smuggle them across the border to reap huge profits on the streets of large U.S. cities.

    Now, the cartels are vertically integrating their "companies" in much the same way oil companies expanded from drilling to refining to selling gasoline on street corners early in the 20th century.

    "Dallas is a hub for drugs just like American Airlines uses Dallas as its hub for air travel," said Phil Jordan, a retired agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration in Texas.

    When he was arrested in October, Bernabe had been living in the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood just west of Love Field since August 2005. He had been deported as an illegal immigrant and had re-entered the U.S. illegally.

    Court records say he often traveled between the U.S. and Mexico. Federal agents identified him as one of five Dallas-area cell leaders for La Familia, an organized-crime group based in Michoacan, Mexico.

    La Familia specializes in manufacturing and selling methamphetamine, a powerful, addictive stimulant known as "ice." Prolonged use can result in brain damage, heart failure, kidney failure, liver damage and vitamin deficiencies that cause skin disease, bone weakness and tooth loss.

    Meth can be so exhilarating that users will engage in risky sexual behavior. Historically, the drug has played a role in promoting the HIV epidemic, according to public health experts.

    "Meth is a horrible drug," said Dr. John Carlo, medical director at the Dallas County health department.

    Posing As 'Normal Guy'

    No one knows how many hundreds of pounds of meth Bernabe might have moved through North Texas during the last 41/2 years. And no one knows how many drug dealers Mexican cartels have dispatched to Dallas to pose as a "normal guy" in the neighborhood.

    Bernabe lived in a modest wood-frame rent house - valued at $66,000 on the tax rolls - with his wife, Dominga, and their four children. Of course, he could have afforded something much nicer. But the Love Field neighborhood that runs along the western edge of the airport was a perfect place to hide in plain sight.

    Police and Love Field-area community leaders estimate that a third of neighborhood residents, like Bernabe, are in the U.S. illegally. They speak only Spanish, which is accepted in the neighborhood. Roosters run free in some yards. Outdoor statues of the Virgin Mary are common. The ever-present roar of jetliners landing and taking off can be deafening.

    Federal authorities have charged Bernabe with meth distribution and money laundering. They consider him a flight risk and are holding him in jail without bail. But his wife and children still live in the house on Cortland Avenue a couple of blocks south of a Catholic church and an elementary school.

    Agents say Bernabe is not the kind of drug dealer who sold dime bags out of his house.

    La Familia manufactures meth in remote laboratories scattered around the state of Michoacan in central Mexico. Bernabe grew up in a rural area around Apatzingan, a city of 100,000 people in Michoacan.

    Apatzingan is well-known to drug enforcement agents as a hotbed of drug-dealing activity and a home base of La Familia. Television reports of gunfights between warring cartel factions and between the cartel and police in Apatzingan shocked the nation in 2009. One video showed schoolchildren scrambling under their desks to avoid gunfire.

    Authorities believe most of the Michoacan meth arrives in the U.S. hidden in 18-wheelers carrying fruits, vegetables and other products from Mexico.

    Bernabe never touched the drugs or kept them at his Love Field house. He used cellphones to direct his operation, ordering subordinates to pick up large quantities ( often a pound or more of meth ), deliver them to a buyer, collect the cash and then make arrangements to ship the cash back to Mexico, authorities say.

    In one case, drug agents allege that a female courier working for Bernabe boarded a bus bound for Michoacan with $157,000 in cash. In another case, drug agents reported finding $107,000 in cash welded into the gas tank of a blue Ford Yukon bound for Mexico.

    During a three-year investigation, agents followed Bernabe everywhere he went and electronically monitored his phone calls. They followed him and his family to church at the Cathedral Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe in downtown Dallas. They watched him and his wife - usually driving a 2006 black Chrysler 300 - drop off the kids at Obadiah Knight Elementary School and T.J. Rusk Middle School.

    When he played volleyball with friends or visited Lone Star Park for the horse races, agents were there and listening to his phone calls, which were always conducted in Spanish. He never worked a regular job. Investigators identified and arrested 15 subordinates who they say worked for him.

    Drug trafficking experts characterize La Familia as a violent organization, but Bernabe was not known to carry a firearm and none was found in his house or in his vehicles when he was arrested, according to court records. No one saw him drink to excess or use drugs.

    "My father isn't just a good father; he's a very good father," said Bernabe's 13-year-old son, the eldest child. "I miss him. I really miss him."

    He said his mother tries to comfort him and his younger siblings. "She says God and the Virgin will send him back," the son said.

    His mother has told him that she is looking for a job now that Bernabe is gone. Although they can't be sure, federal agents suspect she and the family are living on drug money stashed in a secret hiding place.

    Bernabe faces a minimum of 10 years in prison. He has retained the services of Wichita Falls lawyer Robert Estrada, which means he and his family and friends have access to thousands of dollars to pay legal fees. Otherwise, he would have pleaded poverty and relied upon a court-appointed lawyer.

    Estrada went to visit Bernabe recently at a federal lock-up in Mansfield.

    "I think he's scared, which is only natural," Estrada said. "What I can tell you in his favor is that he is a good father and a good husband."

    House No One Lived In

    Bernabe, who never completed high school in Mexico, wasn't very good at escaping the notice of federal drug agents. But he tried.

    Investigators describe him as unsophisticated and lacking knowledge of U.S. conspiracy laws. He thought he couldn't be busted if he never touched the drugs and simply directed the actions of his subordinates in La Familia.

    In 2008, he bought a typical suburban home - three bedrooms, two baths and an attached two-car garage - on Overglen Drive in Garland. He paid $108,000 in cash for the house but persuaded the seller to keep the property in his name, according to court records. He thought he could stay off the drug enforcement radar screen if he kept his name off property records.

    Bernabe also gave people cash to buy cars and trucks to use in his drug-dealing operations, drug agents allege. His name never showed up as owner of several vehicles now in the possession of the DEA.

    Bernabe's closest neighbors on Overglen included a preacher and his wife, a disabled man battling cancer and a cable company technician. None of them knew that no one actually lived at the house.

    Before Bernabe bought the house, a 6-foot-tall chain link fence enclosed the back yard. Later, neighbors thought it strange when a 6-foot-tall wood privacy fence popped up just inside the chain link fence. It looked weird.

    Bernabe also put up a padlocked gate across his driveway in the alley. Several signs announced Brinks Home Security as the property's protector. A birdhouse hangs from a tree limb in the front yard.

    No one was home when federal agents and Garland police raided the house. Agents confiscated a cellphone, a plastic bag containing "a white powdery substance" and bags of documents and paperwork. The federal government now claims ownership of the house under forfeiture laws designed to take property that drug dealers use for criminal purposes.

    More than two months after the raid, some neighbors still were not aware of what had happened at Bernabe's house.

    Nancy Morgan went to work and came home every day with no knowledge that the house three doors down was "a stash house" and not really anyone's home.

    "It really is shocking not to even know," she said after a reporter told her the story. "It almost makes you want to pack up and leave."

    Ovella Thompson, who is 71 and retired, lives across the street from the Bernabe house. She prefers to put a positive spin on why a drug dealer chose to corrupt her neighborhood.

    "This is a quiet neighborhood," she said. "I believe he chose this street because it's safe and well-kept and pleasant - a place police would never look."

    'Cheese,' Not Meth

    Grauwyler Park, a library and a recreation center anchor the neighborhood west of Love Field. Because children and teens congregate there, drug dealers have plagued the park.

    Wilma Avalos, a community activist and homeowner, said her neighborhood is the kind of place where a drug dealer might meet children getting off a school bus in the afternoon. And it's the kind of place that reveres Our Lady of Perpetual Help, the neighborhood's big Catholic church.

    For several years, Avalos and police officers who patrol the area have focused on stopping the distribution of "cheese," a form of heroin. Meth really hasn't popped up as a problem in their neighborhood. They hadn't heard about the October arrest of Balmer Bernabe on Cortland.

    "We have to keep our ears and eyes open and I'm glad this one is gone," Avalos said when told about Bernabe's arrest.

    Steve Fuentes, a Dallas police officer who spent almost two decades working in the neighborhood, said he understands why Bernabe chose to live on Cortland, a lightly traveled dead-end street lined with modest homes, many with neatly tended lawns.

    "Sounds like he was doing the devil's work," Fuentes said. "So, he avoids notice in a quiet neighborhood in the center of the city and close to things like the Mexican grocery stores over on Harry Hines. And he doesn't deal out of his house."

    Still, the question persists: How many Balmer Bernabes are dealing large amounts of recreational Mexican poison in the Dallas area?

    "Who knows?" Fuentes said. "How many Tiger Woodses are out there on the pro golf tour?"

    Scott Parks
    January 10, 2010
    Dallas Morning News


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