Sunday, February 13, 2011
Case details South Texas smuggling network, possible Zeta plot to attack deputies
By: Jared Taylor
For years, Jose Maria Carvajal Jr. moved thousands of pounds of marijuana through his Brooks County ranch, authorities allege.
Carbajal’s workers used all-terrain vehicles and other means to move loads around Falfurrias for the better part of a decade, according to court documents.
All the while, informants inside Carbajal’s smuggling operation allowed federal investigators to unravel the inner workings of the network and build a case against its key players.
Investigators finally brought the hammer down on Carbajal last month, when he told an informant two members of the Zetas drug cartel traveled to his ranch.
Carbajal claimed he showed the cartel enforcers where two Brooks County sheriff’s deputies lived — apparent kidnapping targets after authorities intercepted 1,100 pounds of the Zetas’ marijuana.
Those two cops are Brooks County Chief Deputy Benny Martinez and Deputy Mo Saavedra.
Battling drug smugglers, whether they’re based in the U.S. or Mexico, is part of the job for Martinez.
“He also mentioned my family,” the chief deputy said. “That’s when it really hit close to home. As far as I’m concerned, (threats) are part of the career I chose. But when it comes to family members, that’s a different story.”
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigation into Carbajal dates back to a September 2008 drug bust.
U.S. Border Patrol agents intercepted more than 600 pounds of marijuana hauled by three of his workers, according to a 19-page criminal complaint. They moved the drugs in a John Deere Gator all-terrain vehicle, wearing night-vision goggles to maintain a low profile under the cover of darkness.
Agents arrested Ernesto Hernandez that night but were unable to catch his two buddies helping move the load, the complaint states. He was eventually sentenced to more than seven years in prison for the smuggling attempt.
Authorities eventually arrested the two others who were working with Hernandez the night he was caught. One of the men, Emerson Lopez, busted out of the Brooks County Jail in November 2008. Tracking dogs followed his scent to Carbajal’s house, a quarter of mile west of the jail.
There, federal agents made contact with Carbajal and his wife, Falescha, who said she worked as an interior decorator, the complaint states. Lopez was nowhere to be found.
It wasn’t until August 2010 that the case against Carbajal seemed to gain traction.
A Brooks County sheriff’s deputy caught one of his smugglers with 370 pounds of pot.
The smuggler, an illegal immigrant, told investigators he had been brought to the area a few weeks before to work on Carbajal’s ranch. He claimed Carbajal was paid $25,000 to move the load of marijuana through his ranch.
The informant told investigators Carbajal’s smuggling ring primarily moved drugs around the Falfurrias checkpoint north to Arkansas, where he has several contacts including his brother-in-law, the complaint states.
The money would be funneled back to Carbajal and his wife in Brooks County, where they allegedly sold property to friends to help launder hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Another informant told investigators he would receive $1,000 cash whenever he moved a drug load through the ranch. Loads typically would cross the ranch twice a month.
The informants continued to work with Carbajal into December of last year, when one tipped off authorities to the load purportedly owned by the Zetas.
Federal, state and local authorities busted Carbajal’s smugglers as they attempted to move the drugs near Falfurrias.
After that, Carbajal told one informant that he had met with the Zetas on his ranch and tipped them off to where deputies Martinez and Saavedra live.
“Carbajal informed these individuals Benny Martinez was in charge in Brooks County and would be the one to capture in order to make him talk about who provided the information,” according to the criminal complaint.
Martinez said that threat likely prompted ICE agents to expedite Carbajal’s arrest. He was taken into custody without incident Jan. 12.
Authorities never independently confirmed that Carbajal met with the Zetas or that they were planning to kidnap the deputies.
“They felt like he was becoming more of a threat for everyone around,” Martinez said.
Carbajal was indicted last week in U.S. District Court in Corpus Christi on charges of money laundering and conspiracy to possess marijuana. His wife, Falescha, was also indicted on a money laundering charge.
Court documents state Carbajal’s smuggling network had operated since 2003.
Martinez, however, said the operation dates back to the late 1990s, when Carbajal purportedly took it over after authorities took down others involved in moving drugs through the ranchlands.
Carbajal’s smuggling network stands out for its broad reach and for the length of time it has been in operation, Martinez said.
“When you're moving so much for so many years, you feel like you can run the county,” the chief deputy said. “That's why he was mad at us — because we disrupted his trafficking.”
But in Brooks County, where Border Patrol agents and as few as one local sheriff’s deputy patrol the entire 955-square-mile area at any given time, making a living moving contraband is hardly uncommon.
Bootleggers moving tequila and moonshine during Prohibition gave way to the drug and human smuggling common across the South Texas monte today, Martinez said. With that sort of a history, smuggling operations likely won’t go away.
“It is inevitable. It is happening and it is continuing to happen.” Martinez said. “There’s a lot of major stuff happening, but it’s out there in the brush — and they get away with it.”