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Unraveling Mexico's Sinaloa drug cartel

  1. jon-q
    As drug smugglers from the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico sent a never-ending stream of cocaine across the border and into a vast U.S. distribution web in Los Angeles, DEA agents were watching and listening.

    Never lose track of the load.

    It was drilled into everybody who worked for Carlos “Charlie” Cuevas. His drivers, lookouts, stash house operators, dispatchers -- they all knew. When a shipment was on the move, a pair of eyes had to move with it.

    Cuevas had just sent a crew of seven men to the border crossing at Calexico, Calif. The load they were tracking was cocaine, concealed in a custom-made compartment inside a blue 2003 Honda Accord.

    The car was still on the Mexican side in a 10-lane crush of vehicles inching toward the U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspection station. Amputee beggars worked the queue, along with men in broad-brimmed hats peddling trinkets, tamales and churros.

    A lookout watching from a car in a nearby lane reported on the load's progress. Cuevas, juggling cellphones, demanded constant updates. If something went wrong, his boss in Sinaloa, Mexico, would want answers.

    The Accord reached the line of inspection booths, and a lookout on the U.S. side picked up the surveillance. He was Roberto Daniel Lopez, an Iraq War veteran, standing near the “Welcome to Calexico” sign.

    It was the usual plan: After clearing customs, the driver would head for Los Angeles, shadowed by a third lookout waiting in a car on South Imperial Avenue.

    But on this hot summer evening, things were not going according to plan. Lopez called his supervisor to report a complication: The Accord was being directed to a secondary inspection area for a closer look. Drug-sniffing dogs were circling.

    Cuevas rarely talked directly to his lookouts or drivers. But after being briefed by the supervisor, he made an exception. He called Lopez.

    “What's happening?” he asked.

    “The dogs are going crazy,” Lopez replied.

    Dots on a map

    Cuevas worked for the Sinaloa cartel, Mexico's most powerful organized crime group. He was in the transportation side of the business. Drugs were brought from Sinaloa state to Mexicali, Mexico, in bus tires. Cuevas' job was to move the goods across the border and deliver them to distributors in the Los Angeles area, about 200 miles away.

    The flow was unceasing, and he employed about 40 drivers, lookouts and coordinators to keep pace.

    The canines circling the load car that evening in August 2006 were the least of his problems. Eight agents from a Drug Enforcement Administration task force had converged on the border. Not even U.S. customs inspectors knew they were there. The agents had been following Cuevas and tapping his phones for months.

    Because he was a key link between U.S. and Mexican drug distributors, his phone chatter was an intelligence gusher. Each call exposed another contact, whose phone was then tapped as well. The new contacts called other associates, leading to more taps. Soon the agents had sketched a vast, connect-the-dots map of the distribution network.

    Its branches spanned the U.S. and were believed to lead back to Mexico's drug-trafficking heartland, to Victor Emilio Cazares, said to be a top lieutenant of Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman, the most wanted trafficker in the world. From his mansion outside Culiacan, Cazares allegedly oversaw the network of smugglers, distributors, truckers, pilots and stash house operators.

    Other DEA investigations had targeted Mexican cartels, but this one, dubbed Operation Imperial Emperor, was providing the most complete picture of how drugs moved from Sinaloa to U.S. streets.

    DEA officials were in no hurry to wrap it up. In fact, they were holding off on arrests so they could continue to study the supply chain and identify new suspects.

    Imperial Emperor would eventually result in hundreds of arrests, the seizure of tens of millions of dollars in drugs and money, and the indictment of Cazares.

    It would also reveal a disheartening truth: The cartel's U.S. distribution system was bigger and more resilient than anyone had imagined, a spider web connecting dozens of cities, constantly regenerating and expanding.

    The guy next door

    As a U.S. Marine in Fallouja, Iraq, Lopez had dodged mortar fire, navigated roads mined with explosives and received a commendation for leadership. Back home in El Centro, he couldn't even get work reading meters for the local irrigation district.

    But Lopez, who had two children to support, knew another industry was always hiring.

    One of the Sinaloa cartel's main pipelines runs through the antiquated U.S. port of entry at Calexico, a favorite of smugglers. The inspection station sits almost directly on the border, without the usual buffer zone of several hundred feet, so inspectors have difficulty examining cars in the approach lanes. Drug-sniffing dogs wilt in summer heat that can reach 115 degrees.

    California's southeastern corner, a region of desert dunes and agricultural fields with the highest unemployment rate in the state, offered fertile ground for cartel recruiting.

    Smugglers were your next-door neighbor, the guy ringing you up at Wal-Mart, the big tipper at Applebee's, the old friend at your high school reunion.

    Lopez was friends with a man named Sergio Kaiser, who had married into his family. Kaiser said he owned a body shop, but his tastes seemed too flamboyant for that. He was building a house with a grand staircase modeled on the mansion in the movie “Scarface.”

    In reality, Kaiser was Cuevas' top lieutenant, and he told Lopez he could help him with his money troubles. There were several possibilities.

    For a night's work driving a load car from Mexicali to Los Angeles, a driver shared $5,000 with his recruiter and got to keep the car.

    Another entry-level position was as a lookout. One kind of lookout followed the load car from the stash house in Mexicali to the border. Another stood watch at the port of entry and reported when the car had cleared customs. Yet another tailed the load car up the freeway to Los Angeles.

    Lopez accepted Kaiser's offer. Being a lookout was harmless, he figured: Just stand there and watch a car cross the border. “[He] didn't say it involved drugs, but I knew,” Lopez said. “I thought, 'What's the big deal?'“

    Tricks of the trade

    Cuevas owned a large tract home in Calexico and drove a late-model BMW 323. A gold chain dangled from his thick neck. Married with two children, he enjoyed the cliched perks of a smuggler's life. He went through several mistresses, treating them to breast-enhancement surgeries and trips to Disneyland and San Francisco.

    He would ride his pricey sand rail in the Baja California dunes, and he always picked up the tab at restaurants or on wild weekends across the border in Mexicali.

    At Emmanuel's barber shop, Cuevas would jump the line to get his “fade” haircut, then pay for everybody else's trim. He took care of friends' hospital bills and lent people money, no strings attached.

    “When you think of drug cartels, you think violence, guns, killing,” Lopez said in an interview. “This guy was nothing like that.”

    He didn't carry weapons or surround himself with enforcers. Constantly juggling phones and buying packaging materials from Costco, he seemed more stressed out than intimidating. Cuevas had a stutter, and it worsened when his boss Cazares called from Sinaloa. He took antacids to calm an anxious stomach.

    To get drugs across the border, he deployed a fleet of SUVs and cars with custom-made hidden compartments. He favored Volkswagen Jettas and Chevrolet Avalanches. Both were manufactured in Mexico, and the DEA believes cartel operatives were able to study the designs to identify voids where drugs could be concealed.

    Cuevas sent the cars to a mechanic in Compton who outfitted the compartments with elaborate trapdoors. The jobs took two weeks and the mechanic charged as much as $6,500, but it was worth it. Only a complicated series of actions could spring the doors open.

    One front-bumper nook could be accessed only by connecting a jumper cable from the positive battery post to the front screw of a headlight. The jolt of electricity would cause the license plate to fall off, revealing the trapdoor.

    Cuevas picked his drivers with great care, rejecting people with visible tattoos or serious criminal records and sending those he hired on dry runs to test their nerves. He kept the Calexico border crossing under constant watch, focusing on the mobile X-ray machine that could see inside vehicles. It was used sparingly, and the moment inspectors drove it away, his crew went to work.

    Over the years, his cars consistently eluded detection.

    “I was great at it. I had never lost a car in the border,” Cuevas said. “Dogs never hit it or nothing.”

    In mid-2006, however, he seemed to lose his touch.

    In June, authorities had followed one of his drivers to Cudahy, near Los Angeles, and seized 163 pounds of cocaine from a stash house.

    A month later, police outside El Centro stopped his best driver, a hot dog vendor from Mexicali, and found $799,000 in a hidden compartment.

    Cuevas had to make the cartel whole, either in cash or by working the debt off by supervising shipments without receiving his cut. Hundreds of pounds of cocaine, meanwhile, continued to pour in every week from Sinaloa, and he was under intense pressure to keep the goods moving.

    Now, on this August evening, a customs inspector had pulled his load car, the Accord, into the secondary inspection area.

    “Dude, I think your guy got busted,” Lopez told Cuevas over the phone. “They've got him in handcuffs.”

    Behind the dashboard and in a rear-quarter panel of the Honda, inspectors found 99 pounds of cocaine. The driver was arrested. Everybody else scattered. Lopez drove home, unconcerned. He had spent only 15 minutes at the border crossing and never got near the drugs.

    Cuevas ordered his crew to dump their cellphones, in case anyone had been listening in. At the DEA's bunker-like surveillance post in nearby Imperial, the wiretap chatter went silent.

    DEA agents had not expected a bust and were not happy about it. The agents had planned to let the driver cross the border and then follow him to his Los Angeles connection. Now they would have to regroup.

    Waiting in the dark

    Two days later, the agents sat in a van down the street from Cuevas' two-story home in Calexico, waiting for the lights to dim. Cuevas' neighbors in the subdivision of red-tile-roofed tract homes included firefighters, Department of Homeland Security officers and state prison guards.

    After months of tailing Cuevas, the agents knew he favored Bud Light beer, burgers at Rally's and tacos atJack in the Box.

    They once pushed the cocaine-filled car of one of his drivers to a gasoline station after the man ran out of fuel on Interstate 5. The driver never suspected that the good Samaritans were helping so they could continue tailing him to his destination.

    After midnight outside Cuevas' home, the agents started digging through his garbage cans. They were searching for a notepad, a receipt, a business card, anything with a phone number on it.

    There was enough evidence to arrest Cuevas. But the goal was to expand the investigation, and that required resuming the phone surveillance. Agents hoped Cuevas had thrown away the numbers of some -- even one -- of the 30 new cellphones he had just distributed to his crew.

    Sifting through trash was always a filthy chore, especially so in this case. Cuevas was the father of a newborn. The agents were elbow-deep in dirty diapers.

    Finally, they pulled something from the muck. It was a piece of spiral notebook paper with numbers scrawled on it. Phone numbers.

    Richard Marosi
    Los Angeles Times 24th July 2011

    About this story

    For several years, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration put the distribution side of Mexico's Sinaloa cartel under a microscope. This series describes the detailed picture that emerged of how the cartel moves drugs into Southern California and across the United States. Times staff writer Richard Marosi reviewed hundreds of pages of records, including DEA investigative reports, probable-cause affidavits, and transcripts of court testimony and phone surveillance. He also interviewed DEA agents, prosecutors and local law enforcement officers serving on DEA-led task forces, as well as two cartel operatives convicted in the investigation.



  1. jon-q
    [imgr=white]http://www.drugs-forum.com/forum/attachment.php?attachmentid=21761&stc=1&d=1311712873[/imgr] The strands of the Sinaloa drug cartel web

    Channeling the Mexican cartel's nonstop river of cocaine onto trucks bound for cities in the U.S. requires a vast labyrinth of smugglers working in L.A. And women like Lupita, a no-nonsense psychic with a short fuse.

    Gabriel Dieblas Roman took orders from cartel bosses in Mexico, hard men who ruled by fear, but he wouldn't approve a shipment without talking to a plucky, middle-aged woman from Compton.

    Guadalupe "Lupita" Villalobos ran a storefront botanica where Virgin of Guadalupe statuettes sat beside grinning Saint Death skeletons. She would threaten to turn neighbors into toads, and her clients believed she could divine the future by studying snail shells scattered on a tabletop.

    Roman, a client, called her one day for advice on an important matter.

    Sounding anxious about a pending cocaine shipment to the East Coast, he asked Villalobos to "give it a little look."

    "When is it leaving?" Villalobos asked.

    "Tomorrow," Roman said.

    A rattling sound came over the phone, then the jangle of objects spilling on a hard surface.

    "Well, everything is normal," Villalobos told Roman.

    But she wasn't finished.

    "Be careful, there is surveillance," she said.

    Be wary of a young gordito, a chubby guy. "It seems that he has trouble with the police."

    Roman knew who she meant.

    "That son of a bitch is worse than a parrot," he said.

    The L.A. hub

    The Sinaloa cartel, Mexico's most powerful organized crime group, has its version of a corporate headquarters in gaudy mansions and hilly estates that dot the state of Sinaloa. But its U.S. distribution hub sits 1,000 miles northwest, in the immigrant neighborhoods that line the trucking corridors of Southern California.

    Drugs move from Colombia to Mexico, then across the Imperial Valley to stash houses and staging areas around Los Angeles. There, scores of distribution cells take over, packaging the cocaine and concealing it in tractor-trailers headed across the United States.

    As one of dozens of transportation coordinators for the cartel, Roman bought tractor-trailers, hired drivers and arranged for loads of frozen chickens as cover. He received the drugs from Eligio "Pescado" Rios, who operated a string of stash houses.

    Together they formed part of a pipeline that extended across the country to a distributor living near Yankee Stadium in New York.

    The shipments were relatively small, from 300 to 600 pounds, to reduce losses in the event of a seizure. Yet the drip-drip-drip of the Rios-Roman pipeline was believed to deliver a ton of cocaine a month to the Northeastern U.S.

    Neither man was getting rich. Roman drove an old Ford Mustang, Rios a banged-up white truck he called "La Paloma" (The Dove).

    Roman's family lived in a tiny house in the high-desert town of Hesperia. Rios rented a room atop a garage in Paramount. Neither flashed weapons or had serious rap sheets.

    They were like hundreds of other modestly paid workers -- truckers, money couriers, load coordinators -- who kept the drug supply chain humming. Rios and Roman had something else in common: Both were very superstitious.

    They relied on psychics to guide their operations, and they gave them a cut of the profits. The psychics provided advice on timing. Cartel psychics have also been known to put curses on law enforcement officers, "cleanse" stash houses, perform elaborate candle-lighting ceremonies or smear goat entrails across floors.

    The strange rituals and breathless divinations were overheard by agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration investigating a major distribution network of the Sinaloa cartel. The probe had been dubbed Imperial Emperor, after a suspect named Kaiser, German for "emperor."

    DEA agents in Los Angeles also took inspiration from their suspects. Rios' nickname, Pescado, means "fish" in Spanish. They dubbed their piece of the case Psychic Catfish.

    Bust in Paramount

    On March 1, 2006, Rios received a call from Carlos "Charlie" Cuevas, one of the cartel's lead smugglers on the California-Mexico border. Cuevas was arranging a large cocaine delivery from Mexico that night. The shipment would arrive in three Chevrolet Avalanches at the Rosewood restaurant in Paramount, southeast of Los Angeles.

    Rios drove to the diner and took a seat. DEA agents waited nearby in parked cars. They had been tracking him and eavesdropping on his phone calls for weeks.

    One of his stash houses was a few blocks away, on 1st Street in Paramount. Two of his brothers lived there. On weekends, they grilled carnitas on the patch of front lawn and cranked up their brassy Sinaloa music like any other family in the immigrant neighborhood. Inside, the only furnishings were a few mattresses and a television.

    Rios used a toolbox built into the bed of his truck to move drugs from his stash houses to staging areas: warehouses or homes with double lots that could accommodate tractor-trailers. Mechanics and packers moved the cocaine to the trailers, taking hours to hide it in the guts of the refrigeration units. The trucks then left for the East Coast, with two drivers to keep them moving around the clock.

    The different parts of the distribution system were strictly compartmentalized. Rios delivered the drugs to the staging area, but he was long gone by the time Roman arrived with the drivers. The two men had probably never met; all they knew was to follow orders from a man called Gato in Guadalajara, beyond the DEA's reach.

    At 8:30 p.m., the first Avalanche showed up at the Rosewood. Rios took the key and drove to the stash house on 1st Street. The wall between the garage and a bedroom had a large cutout to allow for quick unloading. Packers in the bedroom bundled and stacked the cocaine for shipment to the staging area.

    Over the next few hours, two more Avalanches pulled into the parking lot. Each time, Rios drove the SUV to the stash house for unloading and returned to the restaurant. Then he went home.

    At 4 a.m., police raided the house and found nearly 455 pounds of cocaine in neatly stacked packages. Rios' brothers were arrested but he was not -- a calculated move by the DEA.

    To press charges against Rios, the DEA would have had to file a probable-cause affidavit revealing the wiretap operation. That would have alerted suspects across the U.S. and in Mexico that federal agents were listening in on their conversations.

    The DEA had gone to great lengths to keep the investigation secret, enlisting local law enforcement agencies to make arrests and seizures, as with the Paramount bust.

    Agents kept the nervous Rios under surveillance, hoping his phone chatter and movements would tell them more about cartel operations. They didn't anticipate his next move: Rios fled to his home in Culiacan, Sinaloa, where he was promptly kidnapped by cartel enforcers.

    The bust had cost the cartel about $3.3 million, and powerful people were upset. In Sinaloa, Rios was tied up and beaten over several days, leaving behind a mattress stained with his blood.

    Getting desperate

    Roman, a failed truck driver with a sixth-grade education, licked his upper lip when he was nervous. By mid-2006, he had ample reason to be.

    In recent months, truckers linked to him had been arrested in Missouri, New Jersey, Atlanta and Oklahoma, each with more than 220 pounds of cocaine. Another trucker was caught with $3.5 million in cash. Each of the seizures was carried out by a different law enforcement agency.

    Now Roman had lost his main supplier -- Rios -- along with the confidence of his bosses.

    He spent hours working the phones, trying to arrange a shipment. He needed cash to support his two wives -- one in California, one in Mexico -- his 11 children and stepchildren and his pregnant mistress.

    In times like these, he drove to Compton to visit Villalobos at her home. Perhaps she could break his streak of bad luck.

    On one visit, Roman walked past the displays of carved wooden Indian busts near the garage as a DEA agent watched from a distance. A statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe was perched atop the security fence, sprinkled with penny and nickel offerings. There were pit bulls in the backyard, a pigeon coop in the front.

    Mexican psychics have been known to rub white pigeons up and down a person to absorb negative forces before releasing the birds, and any evil, into the sky. They suggest herbal baths and sometimes add hallucinogenic morning glory seeds to teas they serve their clients.

    Whatever Villalobos gave Roman, it appeared to be potent. He practically staggered out the front door and had to be helped into the car by his girlfriend.

    By the fall, Roman had finally lined up a shipment. He called Villalobos, who scattered her snail shells.

    She gave her blessing for the delivery, but with a warning. "Tell the chubby one to be careful."


    Three days later, Hildegardo Rivera, a driver for Roman who lived in the Central Valley farming town of McFarland, headed east in a tractor-trailer believed to be carrying cocaine.

    Rivera was heavyset. It's not known whether he was the man mentioned by the psychic, but he did indeed have troubles: The DEA was tracking his movements through the GPS device in his cellphone.

    Six days after he left Southern California, Rivera's cellphone showed him to be in Keasbey, N.J., where Roman's drivers had been known to deliver cocaine and collect payment. Rivera switched phone numbers and the DEA lost track of him. Agents obtained a court order to track his new number, and by the time they resumed surveillance days later, he was heading back to California.

    Agents tracked his progress through Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee. In Arkansas, Rivera stopped to pick up a load of frozen chickens.

    When Rivera reached Arizona, agents in Los Angeles drove east to intercept him. One parked his unmarked car on the shoulder of Interstate 40 near Flagstaff.

    The agent had never seen Rivera or his big rig. All he had to go on were DMV photographs of several of Roman's suspected truckers.

    A purple truck whooshed past with a plastic human skeleton plastered to its grill. A Halloween prank, the agent thought. More trucks passed.

    When the agent called for Rivera's latest location, he was surprised to hear that the truck was now west of him. The agent made a U-turn and sped back toward California.

    He followed two trucks to a rest stop. Another check of the phone's GPS signal placed Rivera close by.

    The agent saw the purple truck with the skeleton on the front. A man who resembled the picture of Rivera got out of the cab. The agent notified the California Highway Patrol and took off.

    The plan was for the CHP to intercept Rivera at an agricultural checkpoint just inside California. That way, the DEA's cover wouldn't be blown.

    After pulling Rivera over, the CHP officer opened the door of the trailer. It looked empty. A drug-sniffing dog jumped inside.

    DEA agents sitting in their cars a mile away waited anxiously. After 30 minutes, a CHP officer called. No drugs, he said, but the dogs had found 155 plastic-wrapped bundles hidden in the trailer's ceiling panels.

    Each contained about $20,000. The total seizure: $3.1 million.

    No more help

    The bust wiped out what little credibility Roman had left with his bosses. He was soon so broke he couldn't pay his utility bills. His California wife lugged buckets around their dusty Hesperia neighborhood, asking for water.

    On Dec. 5, 2006, Roman called Villalobos. He used to tip her as much as $2,000 for a $20 reading, but now he said he was penniless.

    She offered no sympathy.

    "Sometimes one digs one's own grave," the psychic said. "I am not going to … continue with an ungrateful person."

    "Don't be like that," Roman responded.

    He offered to show her the police report on the money seizure, proof that he wasn't holding out on her.

    She dismissed it. She didn't care that he was broke now. She felt he had cheated her when times were good.

    "Listen carefully to what I am going to tell you: How many years did we work together? How many trips did we make together? Seventeen trips?"

    She went on: "With me helping, everything worked out perfectly for you."

    "That's right," Roman said.

    I was helping, made you boss of bosses. Where is the money?" she said. "You screwed me when you didn't need me anymore."

    In May 2007, a federal grand jury in New York indicted Roman on cocaine-distribution and money-laundering charges. Among the potential witnesses: Lupita Villalobos.

    Prosecutors flew her to New York, but she wouldn't leave her hotel. They leaned on her to testify. She refused.

    In the end, her cooperation wasn't necessary. Roman pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 14 years.

    Rios, the stash house operator who fled to Culiacan, re-entered the U.S., was arrested and pleaded guilty to conspiracy.

    Rivera, the trucker, was accused of conspiracy, but the charge was dropped.

    Villalobos was never charged. The psychic stuck to her story: She was a simple businesswoman trying to make a living.

    "These people give me money and I tell them what they want to hear," she said. "I don't know the future."

    Richard Marosi
    Los Angeles Times 26th July 2011
  2. jon-q
    Flying high for the Sinaloa drug cartel

    John Charles Ward would take flight in the half-light before dawn, when he could race down the runway without headlights and ascend into the cloaking embrace of an overcast sky.

    Soaring above the crowded California freeways in the single-engine aircraft, he'd relax, pour himself a whiskey and Seven and plan his hopscotch route to Pennsylvania. Inside the plane were 242 pounds of cocaine; outside, nothing but clouds.

    "There are no curbs in the sky," Ward said. "There's no place for anybody to pull you over."

    Flying shipments for the Sinaloa drug cartel was Ward's best gig in years. No street dealing, packaging or other grubby chores required. He delivered cocaine to a distributor in Pennsylvania and returned with duffel bags stuffed with up to $2.8 million, keeping a few 6-inch stacks of cash for himself.

    Taking off from Riverside County's Corona Municipal Airport at dawn, Ward could be back the next day, feeding twenties and hundreds into the counting machine at his home in Carlsbad.

    Still, he had some nagging concerns. The Mexican distributors in Pennsylvania were trying to cut costs by hiring immigrant truckers to haul drugs from Southern California. And U.S. agents were keeping a close watch on traffickers in the historic towns of Lancaster County, Pa., a distribution hub.

    Ward was an expert at covering his tracks. He usually stayed at a cottage-style motel just off the runway at Smoketown Airport, the self-described "Gateway to Pennsylvania's Amish Country." After midnight he donned black clothing and lugged cocaine-filled gym bags from the plane to his room. He avoided people, paid cash for most purchases and, if anybody asked, said he was an aircraft broker.

    "The money never stopped. The product never stopped," he said. "Everything was moving continuously."

    Veteran of the trade

    By the time President Nixon declared the "war on drugs" in 1971, Ward had been transporting dope to California for years. He grew weed at a farm he owned in Missouri and shipped it by truck. A few years later, responding to demand for better pot, he partnered with marijuana farmers in Mexican villages and hired pilots -- some of them Vietnam War veterans -- to fly the drugs across the border.

    But they were unreliable prima donnas. So he decided to get a pilot's license. He went to Hawaii to train in crosswinds, headwinds and on island hops.

    "I said to myself: 'I'm going to be the best smuggler there is. I'm going to be the one without an attitude,' " Ward said.

    Ward was scrappy and resourceful, an adrenaline junkie with a taste for the finer things. His smuggling paid for a desert estate, a sailboat named Romancing and Dom Perignon-fueled parties. He relished the challenges of aerial smuggling and devised ingenious ways to avoid detection.

    He'd fly across the border skimming treetops to evade radar. He'd land in the desert, at improvised airstrips where his crews laid generator-powered runway lights. For engine troubles, he packed a tool bag with fuses and wrenches. For human problems, he tucked a 9-millimeter handgun in his waistband.

    One step ahead

    Federal authorities, who had been aware of Ward's air smuggling since 1975, chased him in the desert sky, bugged his phones and planted tracking devices on his aircraft, some of which he found and kept behind his bar at home to show off to his drinking buddies.

    In 1981, customs agents seized three of his planes at airports in Riverside County. He was convicted of drug conspiracy charges as the leader of 13 pilots and ground crew members. He served four years of an eight-year sentence, and took to the skies again.

    In 1990, federal agents saw Ward's plane touch down on a landing strip near Death Valley. The ground crew unloaded 500 pounds of marijuana, and Ward flew off into the night. A government pilot gave chase with his lights out but lost him. Agents found the plane later at Banning Municipal Airport. The belly was coated with dirt, the engine still hot. But Ward was gone.

    The agents caught his crew members, who fingered Ward. He faced conspiracy charges in that case and another in Riverside County. He was looking at up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

    His attorney, Tom George Kontos, a former federal prosecutor from Los Angeles, negotiated a plea agreement that resulted in a year's house arrest.

    Ward was forever grateful to the sharp-dressing attorney who he said was skilled at swaying judges. "He could charm the birds out of the trees," Ward said.

    Kontos and Ward became close friends, attending each other's weddings and investing in a used-car business. Ward referred several traffickers to Kontos; Kontos sold Ward his house in Carlsbad, paid for with drug money.

    Ward named his second son after Kontos. "He described me as the brother he never had," Ward said. "He was my hero."

    'Pouring concrete'

    Ward and his wife lived in a large, two-story home that backed onto an ocean-fed lagoon in Carlsbad. Neighbors would see him tinkering in his garage where he was designing an airplane-towing device. They rarely got so much as a wave hello, but they figured it was the aloof manner of an eccentric amateur inventor. They had no idea that Ward buried money in his yard or flew drugs across the country.

    Ward began flying for the Sinaloa cartel in 2004, teaming with Rafael Dominguez, a racehorse breeder from Riverside County who had connections to drug distributors in Southern California.

    When Dominguez had a cocaine load ready for shipment, he'd phone Ward, telling him that he had lined up another job "pouring concrete."

    The cocaine was the best Ward had ever tasted, and was believed to come from a drug distribution network headed by Victor Emilio Cazares, allegedly a top cartel lieutenant in Sinaloa. The bricks were labeled with a scorpion logo.

    "It was uncut … a pearly color, flaky, with a candy kind of smell to it," Ward said. "People would pull your arms off for that stuff."

    Ward could carry nearly 250 pounds of cocaine per flight and he charged $450 per pound, earning about $110,000 per trip, plus $5,000 for expenses.

    Truckers, some with spotty records, delivered nearly double that amount for half Ward's fee.

    Ward didn't like the cost-cutting and careless behavior of the East Coast distributors to whom he delivered the drugs. He'd had words with one of them, Noe Coronado, who cultivated a Culiacan clubster look -- pompadour and shiny rayon pants -- that stood out in the bluejeans-and-baseball-cap world of Lancaster, Pa.

    Ward worried that Coronado's lack of discretion put them both at risk. Nevertheless, it was hard to resist the tug of another deal. "It wasn't just a smuggling job. It was my career," Ward said. "I put a lot of thought into it and tried to see where others made mistakes."

    When Ward got a call about another shipment, he would drop the tools in his garage, pocket his two-way radio and grab his GPS case and overnight bag. At the door, he would kiss his wife goodbye.

    "Don't ask me when I'm coming home. Don't ask me where I'm going…. I'll just see you later," he would say.

    Cops down below

    Ward always arrived before dawn at Corona Municipal Airport, a dusty compound with a diner and flight school and a double-wide trailer for a manager's office.

    He and Dominguez would drive to the plane and throw the duffel bags in the tail-section storage compartment. About 15 minutes before dawn, Ward lifted off alone over the office parks and turned east.

    The 1992 Socata, a French-made aircraft, had a cruising speed of 200 mph and an 800-mile range, which meant four refueling stops. Down below, Ward saw highway checkpoints crawling with cops. High above, he could have a drink, maybe smoke a joint or watch some porn on his laptop.

    Flying below 18,000 feet he didn't need a flight plan. Most of the airports where he stopped were sleepy municipal or mom-and-pop operations.

    Still, Ward didn't take any chances. After taxiing to a refueling stop, he ran through the maintenance checklist like a one-man Nascar pit crew.

    "There's not one second wasted," he said. "When you land, you break out your computer as you're gassing your airplane. Getting the weather, you get the quart of oil … grab it, stick it in … throw away the spout, wipe your hands [and] jump in the airplane."

    By dusk, he could see the green rolling hills and farmland of southern Pennsylvania. He typically landed at Smoketown, but fearing excessive use would draw attention, he had started using airports in York and Carlisle, both within 60 miles of Lancaster.

    Ward had lectured Coronado about his loud clothing. He criticized him once for failing to use the turn signal on their way to dinner and for not keeping his DMV documents current.

    Coronado resented Ward's bossy attitude, but Ward wouldn't back down. "I was dressing him and telling him what to do, but I mean it was a disaster," said Ward. "It's no way to fly."

    Eventually, the lectures had the desired effect. By the fall of 2006, Coronado had changed his wardrobe, trading his shiny pants for Dockers, and had stopped driving without insurance or with expired registration tags. He had also taken Ward's advice and started a carpet cleaning business as a front.

    But Coronado had continued to work with other, less-expensive suppliers, and their loose talk soon caught up with him.

    On Jan. 12, 2007, two men drove down from New York to pick up cocaine that Coronado had received by truck. Tipped to the deal, Drug Enforcement Administration agents followed them and pounced on Coronado after the transaction. The agents found $1.8 million at Coronado's home.

    Facing a potential 20-year prison term, Coronado was pressured to cooperate. He refused to disclose much about his Mexican connections, fearing retaliation against his family. But he was willing to talk about the cocaine shipments he received by air from California.

    One morning in June 2007, Ward walked outside in his bathrobe to get the newspaper and was greeted by squads of police and DEA agents.

    "Don't tell these idiots anything!" he yelled to his wife. "These people are not your friends!"

    Ward figured Kontos could cut a deal, as he had in the past. But prosecutors, suspecting that Kontos was laundering drug money, had seized 12 of his properties. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit obstruction of justice, received a 21-month sentence and agreed to cooperate.

    Kontos revealed that Ward had buried drug money in his backyard. Investigators didn't find anything there, but they did find $67,500 in a bag of walnuts in the freezer.

    Ward pleaded guilty to drug and money-laundering charges and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. The federal government seized his Carlsbad house, the money in the freezer and his Socata aircraft. His partner, Dominguez, also received a 10-year sentence.

    Ward's flying career was over.

    Kontos "said he would never represent an informant, and the guy turns out to be one himself," Ward said.

    Books and a view

    Federal inmate 74505-012 at Northern California's Herlong Correctional Institution works in the kitchen, serving food and sweeping floors. He's four years into his sentence at the minimum-security facility, which has no perimeter fence and feels more like a camp than a prison.

    Ward, 64, roams the large yard, takes algebra classes, reads books on American history and enjoys the views of the Sierra Nevada.

    He's still alive, even after all the close calls of his extreme smuggling years: mechanical failures at 10,000 feet, days stranded in a sweltering desert, encounters with Alaskan bears, Mexican cops, Colombian guerrillas, shotgun-toting thieves and stingy drug lords.

    Some days, he has regrets, but not on this day. After all, a few more years in this relatively genteel setting and he'll be a free man again.

    "I'm the absolute luckiest person on Earth," Ward said. "If you're going to put your luck against mine, you haven't got a chance."

    Richard Marosi
    Los Angeles Times 27th July 2011
  3. jon-q
    [imgr=white]https://www.drugs-forum.com/forum/attachment.php?attachmentid=21837&stc=1&d=1311879603[/imgr] Suspicion in Mexico's Sinaloa cartel

    The towering iron gates opened onto a palm-lined driveway that led past the family church, a twisting water slide and two man-made lakes, one stocked with fish, the other with jet skis.

    With its soaring twin bell towers, each topped by a cross, the mansion in the emerald hills outside Culiacan, Mexico, had an almost surreal grandeur. It reminded Carlos "Charlie" Cuevas of Disneyland, without the smiles.

    Cuevas, a drug trafficker from Calexico, Calif., had been summoned there by Victor Emilio Cazares, allegedly a top lieutenant in the Sinaloa cartel. Cazares was said to be upset by a rash of recent drug seizures by U.S. authorities.

    In one of them, police had raided a stash house in Paramount, southeast of Los Angeles, and confiscated nearly 455 pounds of cocaine, worth about $3.3 million.

    Cuevas had come under suspicion, and not only because he handled the shipment. Raised in California, he was an outsider. He couldn't claim Sinaloan roots. The boss and his heavily armed cronies would make fun of his American-accented Spanish and call him a derogatory term for Mexican Americans.

    Cuevas' drivers and lookouts were also suspect. He had been ordered to bring them to Mexico for questioning. He hadn't.

    Cuevas feared his boss — he'd guzzle Pepto-Bismol for his frequent gut eruptions — but this time he stood firm.

    "I'm so sure it's not one of my guys that you can kill me if it's one of them," Cuevas said.

    In the shadows

    The confrontation reflected the frustrations of a cartel in confusion. Cocaine shipments were being seized all over the U.S.: by New Jersey and New York police, California Highway Patrol officers, Oklahoma state troopers and others. The array of agencies was a cover for the main force behind most of the busts: the Drug Enforcement Administration.

    Cazares didn't know it, but he was a top target in one of the largest DEA investigations ever of a Mexican organized crime group. Operation Imperial Emperor was peeling back layers of a drug distribution ring with hundreds of truckers, packers, money couriers and stash house operators across the U.S.

    Local police made arrests while DEA agents stayed in the shadows, piecing together evidence and listening to cellphone chatter.

    Keeping the DEA's involvement quiet was key.

    A major trafficking suspect like Cazares didn't sweat local busts, but a federal investigation would put him on alert. Wiretaps would go silent, evidence would disappear, suspects would flee.

    The DEA was allowing the drug pipeline to continue running so agents could expand their target list. There would be busts and seizures of drugs and money, but no knockout punch.

    The government was trying to bleed the organization to death.

    It wouldn't be easy. The cocaine economy gushed millions of dollars a week in revenue for a reputed kingpin like Cazares, whose contacts reached from Colombia to the South Bronx. Cocaine purchased from South American producers for about $3,600 a pound was sold for $7,200 in Los Angeles and $9,000 in New York.

    The biggest expense was shipping. Cuevas earned about $250 a pound moving the cocaine across the U.S.-Mexico border to distribution hubs in the Los Angeles area.

    Trucking cells charged as little as $250 a pound for shipments to the East Coast. By air, a pilot from Carlsbad, John Charles Ward, charged $450 per pound.

    The Sinaloa cartel bosses, unlike the Colombian traffickers of the past, didn't control the entire distribution system. Cazares allegedly partnered with local criminal groups — Orange County gang members, Italian Canadian mobsters, Dominicans in the Northeast — to get the drugs to users.

    Profit margins at the wholesale level were staggering: One ton of cocaine, after transportation costs, could yield $5.4 million. Over three years, Cazares had allegedly smuggled an estimated 40 tons into the U.S., generating more than $200 million in profit.

    And that created another logistical challenge: getting the money back to Mexico.

    That was handled by Cazares' sister, according to federal agents and an indictment filed by Los Angeles County prosecutors. Blanca, a society-page fixture in Culiacan nicknamed "the Empress," allegedly controlled currency-changing houses in Tijuana and other border cities, where drug proceeds sent via courier from Southern California were converted to pesos. The cash was divided into amounts of less than $10,000 and deposited in banks along the border.

    Blanca Cazares could withdraw or transfer the funds at will, distributing profits to associates, distributors and her brother.

    Gentleman rancher

    In the mid-1990s, Victor Cazares was an illegal immigrant with big dreams living in a run-down cottage in the city of Bell, southeast of Los Angeles.

    When police arrested him with a baggie of drugs, he said he worked as a $50-a-day landscaper and admitted a fondness for cocaine. He vowed to quit.

    "The defendant's plans are to work and become a Christian," his probation officer wrote in his report.

    By 2005, Cazares had moved back to his homeland, where he kept one of his promises by building a church on his 25-acre estate in Mexico's historical drug-trafficking heartland of Badiraguato, outside Culiacan. He cultivated a reputation as a generous gentleman rancher, and the Mexican government gave him more than $129,000 in subsidies to raise cattle.

    Cazares trucked in locals to harvest his fields of tomato, pepper, eggplant and squash, paying them twice the normal wage.

    "He was a good neighbor. He gave people work. He'd pass by, wave a greeting," said Guadalupe Rubio, who lives in a village near the hacienda.

    Cazares allegedly was a primary distributor for Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman, the Sinaloa cartel's leader and the most wanted trafficker in the world.

    Yet in many ways, he acted more like a vice president of shipping for a U.S. manufacturing firm, obsessing over logistics and cost control.

    While cartel soldiers waged war in Mexican border cities, killing hundreds of rivals and police officers, workers in the U.S. primed the drug pipeline in anonymity, driving small cars, renting modest houses and leading low-profile, generally peaceful lives.

    Spilling blood on U.S. streets was avoided. Disputes were taken care of in Mexico, where discipline or vengeance could be meted out in the lawless countryside outside Culiacan.

    Meet Gato

    By 2006, the money was pouring in, and Cazares tried to track every penny, the DEA investigation found. He called key associates in the U.S. at all hours and took weekly inventories of cocaine shipments moving across the country.

    When authorities intercepted cocaine or money, Cazares demanded that subordinates produce proof of seizure: news clippings, police reports, court documents. If the seizure resulted from good police work, the load was written off as a cost of doing business. If it was deemed the fault of the distributor, Cazares demanded compensation.

    Determining fault sometimes required extreme methods, or at least close interrogation. In such cases, Cazares called meetings at his estate, as he did after the March 2006 bust near Los Angeles.

    Cuevas had arranged delivery of three cocaine loads from Mexicali to a distribution cell in Paramount. The cell was overseen from Mexico by a man known to his subordinates only as Gato, Spanish for "cat."

    A few hours after the delivery, police raided the cell's stash house.

    Eligio "Pescado" Rios, who ran the stash house, fled to Mexico to avoid arrest. Once across the border, he was captured by cartel enforcers. Believing he might have caused the bust through carelessness or deliberate betrayal, they tied him to a bed and beat him for several days.

    Afterward, Cazares was no closer to understanding why the raid had happened. So Cuevas was summoned for questioning. Perhaps the answers would help determine who should pay for the seized drugs and whether anyone else deserved a beating, or worse.

    Walking through Cazares' mansion, Cuevas marveled at the gleaming glass living-room floor that sat over an indoor-outdoor pool. Cazares took special pride in parading his dancing horses, and children could frolic in a playground filled with swing sets and climbing structures.

    Cazares and Cuevas were joined by a third man who wasn't introduced and who remained silent.

    Cazares began grilling Cuevas about the Paramount bust, suggesting that someone from his cell had been followed or had turned informant.

    He said that according to Gato, Cuevas' crew was at fault.

    Cuevas blamed Gato.

    At which point, Cazares introduced the silent man next to him: Gato.

    A heated argument ensued.

    Cuevas' drivers had delivered the drugs, but Gato's stash house operator had received the shipment. Neither man wanted to be on the hook for $3.3 million.

    Cazares eventually stepped in.

    He seemed impressed with Cuevas' mettle. After all, Cuevas had traveled to Sinaloa knowing he might not return, and he'd stood up for his crew, even the ones too frightened to travel with him.

    In the end, Cazares decided not to impose any punishment. It was the practical, business-over-bloodshed approach that exemplified the cartel's distribution side. He needed Gato and Cuevas to continue working together, to keep the drugs flowing. And Cuevas still owed him money for past seizures.

    Intimidation did have its place, however. Before Cuevas was allowed to go home to California, he was shown the room where Rios had been beaten. The mattress was still bloody.

    Time to move

    When Cuevas returned to Calexico, the DEA resumed its surveillance of him. For more than a year, the operation had provided valuable intelligence, but now agents worried that their cover had been blown.

    A car dealer in San Diego who fixed the brakes on Cuevas' BMW had alerted him that agents had installed a tracking device in his car.

    Fearing that Cuevas would flee the country — he had been house-hunting in Culiacan — the task force decided to move in. On the morning of Jan. 20, 2007, a SWAT team broke down Cuevas' back door and arrested him in his underwear. About two dozen members of his crew were arrested that day and in a raid the following month.

    A series of sweeps targeted other players in the supply chain, from South Gate to the South Bronx. In all, authorities charged 402 people, seized 18 tons of cocaine and marijuana and $51 million in cash and property during the 20 months of Operation Imperial Emperor.

    Cuevas pleaded guilty to drug distribution and conspiracy charges, testified against some of his former associates and was sentenced to 13 years in prison — much less than some other defendants.

    As for Cazares, a federal grand jury indicted him in February 2007. Mexican federal agents spotted him and his family in downtown Culiacan later that year. But he was protected by 20 heavily armed bodyguards, and authorities backed off.

    Mexican soldiers descended on his estate a few months later, but Cazares apparently had been tipped off. Three men were seen fleeing over a wall. The Mexican government seized the property.

    A few months later, officials gave it back for reasons that are unclear.

    Still, the agents could take pride in Imperial Emperor's achievements. Their late-night stakeouts, dumpster-diving excursions and tedious phone surveillance, conducted in a bunker-like room littered with takeout menus, had yielded significant results.

    They had developed an extraordinarily detailed picture of how the cartel smuggled drugs into and across the U.S. They had disrupted its distribution system and inflicted substantial financial losses. They had laid the groundwork for a follow-up campaign, Operation Xcellerator, which resulted in 755 additional arrests.

    But the sense of accomplishment was tempered by the realization that the cartel's regenerative powers could trump even the most vigorous enforcement efforts.

    When Cazares' indictment was announced, then-DEA Administrator Karen Tandy said, "Today, we ripped out this empire's U.S. infrastructure … and tossed it into the dustbin of history."

    More than four years later, the cartel continues pumping drugs through the Calexico border crossing.

    Since Cuevas' arrest, several other smuggling crews have sprung up, and the port is still considered one of the main entry points for cocaine on the Southwest border.

    Cazares' whereabouts are unknown. At his estate, the manicured lawns and palm-lined grounds are still carefully tended. Villagers say his mother comes by on occasion and opens the whitewashed church, which is filled with stained-glass windows and decorated with paintings of angels and a serene Jesus.

    Richard Marosi and Tracy Wilkinson
    Los Angeles Times 28th July 2011

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