When South Houston police pulled over a gold Chevy Malibu for speeding on a summer afternoon in 2005, it marked the beginning of the end for at least 68 drug traffickers who over the next four years would be chased and charged with handling thousands of pounds of cocaine and millions of dollars for Mexican drug cartels.
From that single traffic stop emerged a portrait of drug dealing and money laundering, murder and kidnapping, in which Houston was its central character — the trampoline from which rampant chaos and criminality sprang, records show. It also helped unravel the secret lives of cartel workers who blended in as they went about the business of pumping drugs into the United States, and profits back into Mexico.
The driver became a government informant in exchange for leniency on unrelated criminal charges. His cooperation led to a major investigation in Houston, Operation Three Stars. The informant’s identity remains a Drug Enforcement Administration secret, even as in late May five defendants from the last indictment in the investigation were sentenced to prison.
“It always comes back to the drugs,” said an agent who was involved with the operation and spoke on the condition on anonymity. “That is the heartbeat of all this activity out there.”
More than $5 million was seized as well as 3,000 pounds of cocaine during Three Stars, which resulted in nine federal indictments.
While the operation didn’t snare any of Mexico’s infamous drug cartel leaders, court documents and interviews with federal agents and lawyers indicate it dismantled five organizations.
The informant driving the Chevy Malibu tweaked DEA agents’ interest with his insider’s knowledge of a cartel-run bus line that shuttled cocaine and cash between Monterrey, Mexico and finally to Houston.
Buses’ owner gets life
Narcotics, he said, were stashed in compartments built into the walls and gas tanks. Once the passengers were dropped off, the buses headed for an enclosed parking lot near Winkler Drive and Main Street, not far from Hobby Airport. The narcotics were unloaded and repackaged for distribution to New York, Boston, Atlanta, Chicago and other cities.
The owner of three of buses used in another operation, also tied to the cartels, was Elisa Castillo, a 53-year-old grandmother, sentenced in May to life in prison. She insists she was tricked by a friend into putting the vehicles in her name. “I just can’t believe it,” she told the Chronicle in a interview from jail. “I am 100 percent not guilty, not guilty.”
Authorities seized more than $2 million on one of her buses as the profits headed south to cartel bosses in Mexico.
Zoran Yankovich, head of the DEA’s Houston field division, said “Operation Three Stars exposed those members of the Mexican drug cartels operating in our city, camouflaged, unbeknownst to the average citizen. The results of this investigation should send the message that the (DEA) will not allow drug traffickers to come into the United States and operate their illegal businesses inside our borders.”
The traffickers worked chiefly for the Gulf Cartel trafficking syndicate, but sometimes helped other organizations. Three Stars linked the cells to at least seven homicides, nine home invasions and five kidnappings in the Houston area since 2006.
Most victims were players in the drug world. They were shot repeatedly and sometimes beaten before their deaths.
Court documents indicate law enforcement officers spent thousands of hours watching and listening to traffickers.
From Galveston to Houston, Pearland to Columbus as well as in Richmond and other places, they hid near parking lots, homes, bars, shopping centers and a church picnic.
“You can sit there for hours, days, weeks and months of surveillance until you identify that one action that takes place that puts it all together for you,” said the DEA spokeswoman Violet Szeleczky.
DEA agents, working with the Pasadena Police Narcotics Task Force, Houston Police, and the Harris County Sheriff’s Office tailed traffickers who unknowingly led them to meetings, stash houses and rendezvous.
Of the people arrested on federal drug-trafficking charges, some had full-time jobs as criminals, others kept day jobs.
Castillo, the woman who owned three buses had once worked for more than 20 years at an optical company.
Others snared included a tractor-trailer driver, a printing shop employee, a tire shop owner, a bus baggage handler, a man who drove a taxi back in Mexico. Several told authorities they had made money buying and selling used cars.
Big break at stakeout
One of biggest breaks came from staking out a stretch of Interstate 10, near Columbus after getting a tip that Isidro Leal Gonzalez, a mid level drug boss, was on his way to Houston for a meeting. Agents drove up and down the highway, literally looking in windows of cars with Mexican license plates.
And finally, there he was: driving a black Volkswagen Jetta. As agents trailed him, he ultimately led authorities to a warehouse and other traffickers.
But Gonzalez got away. He remains one of the top fugitives being sought by the DEA in Houston, and is believed to be hiding in Mexico.
By DANE SCHILLER
June 6, 2009, 7:47PM