Inside the Sinaloa Cartel’s Drug Smuggling Operations

Forensics personnel remove the bodies of two policemen killed by gunmen during an attack on a street of Culiacan, Sinaloa state on July 12, 2011. Mexico has been gripped by drug-related violence that has killed some 37,000 people since 2006, when the government launched a military crackdown on the cartels. AFP PHOTO / Yuri CORTEZ

The following articles are part of a fascinating series of investigative reports on the Sinaloa drug cartel written by the Los Angeles Times’ Richard Marosi.

Unraveling Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel:

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.

The strands of the Sinaloa drug cartel web:

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.

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.

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 estate 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.

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