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on the border line between the US and Mexico

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Unraveling Mexico's Sinaloa drug cartel

Los Angeles Times
Staff Writer
July 24, 2011

Reporting from Calexico, Calif.—
Never loose track of the load.

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. 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, Dept. 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 at Jack-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.

To be continued next Tuesday...

MORE: The players | Evidence, wiretaps and testimony | How the drug pipeline worked

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. Aww this was so intresting i hope i am here on tuesday... you see people it's a tuff life working with the cartels all the guys look stressed bags under there eyes and stuff its better to work out in the sun a ex cartel memember told me that

  2. One of the best stories I've read on the subject, I love the really intricate and layered explanations of these things. I have a really good one about a kidnapping I should post.

  3. Very interesting & captivating narration so far the best one I've read on this site

  4. Very interesting piece! So who is leading the Sinaloa Cartel now with all this chaos? Chapo, Mayo, Azul, Peinado, or is it a bunch of capo regimes like M1, Bravo, or Fantasma? Any info would be nice?

  5. Great read! Can't wait for tuesday

  6. 11 20 who's el peinado. I hear him mentioned but I don't know much about it

  7. Great,very informative
    .BB the greatest when it comes to reporting on mexicos drug war.

  8. Texcoco Mex said

    Come on men what in the F.... is this me quede picado y ahora tengo que esperar asta el Tusday.

    Good story Layla.

  9. Great story indeed, but just because it seems like they took out one low level courier
    im not convinced at all that the U.S. is doing anything within its own borders, it much rather fight the cartels in Latin America than actually get serious about its "Own War On Drugs" . I believe the Strategy is to fight them off over there so you dont have to fight them over here, but if Miami is an indication it is an ongoing never ending war, as Miami is still flooded with Cocaine, the only thing that changed were the players. Prohibition is a total epic fail, we can all see decapitated brown people and the war goes on, but, the minute its Gringos swinging from bridges im sure many lawmakers will see to it Nixons war comes to a halt. Besides, this is the U.S. "Aqui no pasa nada"

  10. Great read, with not only the stress but having to make up for loss loads, shows it's not worth the risk, work free live long, it's going to be an endless war nonetheless.

  11. is it tuesday yet??

  12. Thank you Richard Marosi from the LA times!

  13. Good read.

    Cartel de Sinaloa is still run by el mayo and el chapo. The rest are just "lugar tienetes". Some may be in charge of plazas AKA "jefes de plaza" such is the case of el pienado in Durango.

  14. @3:44am correction,the Sinaloa cartel is still ran by el chapo,el mayo,and el azul.I doubt el azul is just a lugarteniente,he's without a doubt the main leader of the Sinaloa cartel. Now, he knows exactly how to play this game,without getting caught,this guys very misterious I searched juan Jose esparragoza Moreno alias el azul and still very little is known about him,only that he is the oldest most experienced major drug trafficker that still operates in Mexico.

  15. Lol did u just say that azul is "without a doubt" the main leader? I can understand making the argument that he is high up, 3rd in command, pulling strings behind the scenes, but to say without a doubt the main leader is dumb. There's plenty of doubt. Most would argue chapo is the main leader, and could back it up. Being in the game the longest isn't the only thing that makes u the leader. Don't forget balls

  16. dumb cartel mules-
    Intercept conversations have been going on at the border for a while. Including the I15 Rainbow Border Patrol checkpoint.

  17. in the end, it will be the sinaloa cartel that will be left standing but i believe that they will catch el chapo one day. el chapo probably does'nt even trust his own people. but if el chapo were caught, they could still run the CDS. their chains of command are strong and they have a stronger infiltration in the government. it's the sinaloa cartel vs the rest and i'm betting that the CDS wins.

    in the end, the sinaloa cartel will probably own juarez but they will never fully control mexico. they will have to give other cartels their regions and share mexico's drug routes. el chapo's main goal was to own a border city and it's drug routes. does this man really believe that he can rule all of mexico??

  18. 7:04 PM...Esparragosa has plenty of balls. 5:48 PM made a interesting comment. Why jump on and bust his balls because he made a comment that he wanted feedback on. The Sinaloa Cartel probably employs what, maybe 200,000 people. I find it interesting that the leader is a small man that lives in what, a cave in the mountains? All you ever hear is El Chapo this, El Chapo that. If you were heading an organization like that the right way, you would not allow your name to be discussed. Amado Carrillo would not even allow musicians to write or sing narco songs about him. El Chapo has been doing cocaine for 30 years. I sometimes wonder if he doesn't run around in the mountains with his AK 47 checking marijuana and poppy fields and thats about it. But I also wonder if he is even still in Mexico at all. He almost seems like an allusive mascot. El Mayo is absolutely at the top too but with that interview, I got the since he was about to retire but they have to keep the names at the top so as to keep the competition unsure.

    El Azul had the cocaine connections from the beginning. He was in my opinion almost an equal to Amado in the Juarez Cartel in their day. He is definitely smart enough to not want to be the labeled leader of a cartel because that brings too much heat. He has close ties to all level of government, and close ties to all cartels. He is suppose the be the great negotiator in Mexico. He is very politically connected. Balls, he may have more than any of them. And he does not operate like a coke head.

    I could very easily conceive that he is the true behind the lines leader. Let others have their opinions and join in the discussion in a civil manner. I sometimes wonder if El Viceroy is still leading day to day operations with Juarez too. But they would want to keep the name there to hold Carrillo clout. El Azul was a monster in his day, possibly more feared than Amado. In the 90s, you had better not even mutter his name in Juarez. He is for real but I think he should be called sombre (the shadow).

  19. 8:47 PM...this guy did not in any way come across as a cartel mule. A mule probably make 2k to 10k a month. I bet he was making $500,000 a month. This was a pretty big operation. They probably have 3 more just like it going through TJ, 4 in Juarez, 4 in Sonora, 4 in Ojinaga, and 4 in Nuevo Laredo. From what I read, he certainly knew what he was doing. His problem was that he was working on the side of the border that is more difficult to pay protection and buy your way out.

  20. 3 44 thanks I here him mentioned but thought he must be a sicario or something. El azul is a boss, prime example of how it should be done.

  21. Jose esparragoza Moreno is not a leader of CDS, he is only part of the cartel. This does not mean he doesn't have any rank. Ismael Z. and Joaquin G. are the only bosses of CDS as of now.

  22. You got this sinaloa cartel cheerleaders praising their god el Chapo on all the amazing things his doing for his beloved Mexico and arguing on who's the real leader of cds, el azul? or el chapo? or el mayo? Every time there's an article on the sinaloa cartel they come in here stating how much more powerful they are than other cartel and defending them with everything they read in another article on how unstoppable the CDS is or believing every single word the corrido said. Why would the media lie? or corrido? putting all that effort into making you believe that its only one man or three running the whole thing? If you really buy that, then your thinking process is very limited

    el pipiri

  23. The three main leaders of the sinaloa cartel are el azul.el mayo.and el chapo. And for what I hear I believe el azul is the main leader of the cds then el chapo.and in the end its el mayo.for what I know el azul has been in the business more than el chapo because el azul has been in the business since benjamin arellano felix was in charge and all the ppl think el chapo is the leader because of the corridos and publicity he has! the person who said el azul is nothing or just a sicario or w.e u said well you could tell u dont know anything and listen to 344am

  24. Pipiri
    I'm just laying the facts on the table, that's it. If you don't like facts I'd suggest you get your cartel info from CNN. I would much rather know the truth than live under a rock.

    @3:29 am
    Do have a link that supports your theory? And is azul even in the DEA 10 most wanted list?

    Saludos desde Guadalajara.

  25. Cuevas liked Tacos from Jack-In-The-Box? WTF?

  26. Guadalajara
    If you read what i was saying, it's don't believe the media pendejo. So why would i believe what CNN is saying on the drug war? Their shaping your mind to believe all this bullshit their feeding you and like the sheep that you are, following every word they're saying as gods honest true. I'm not saying some of the things they say ain't true, but think out side the box and don't believe the hype

    el pipiri

  27. Did that fool pipirri say theory,it is no theory azul is one of the main leader of the Sinaloa cartel,yea chapos the one taking all the heat while mayo and azul operate mostly undisturbed.

  28. where in the words i typed did i say theory? You sinaloa brown nosers really take offense.

    el pipiri

  29. No media or corrido artist is shaping my mind. I live in guadalajara currently and the info I get is from the people who live here and know exactly what's going on. No hype around these parts, just the dead bodies found here everyday as a result of a very real cartel war being engaged by various cartels.

    Saludos desde la perla tapatia.

    Everyone else, I'm still very interested in an Internet link that can prove that el azul is a boss of CDS. Prove me wrong.

  30. Este guey no digas que eres de Guadalajara porque nos dejas en verguenza el azul si es uno de Los lideres del cartel de Sinaloa por todos es bien sabido

  31. I don't think el pipiri is saying that there is no war going on. looks like his just sticking it to the people that are arguing on who's the leader of cds. Like if they really know who is running shit, with there "I've heard someone say this or that"

  32. @4:43pm
    Por favor porporciona un link para poder verificar esto que dices si te seintes tan seguro/segura.


  33. @4:49pm
    You would think DEA and the FBI would know "who is running shit"?


  34. The sophistication of this cartel is way beyond the common american football or mexican futbol concept of leadership: owner/headcoach/team captain/players. Therefore any allusion to this type of structure is faulty to begin with. In fact the sophistication is even a step above any academic consideration at the time since "experts" have not even begun to grasp it let alone the PhDs that slobber over this kind of info. The sophistication of this scheme is real-time organized criminal traffic of controlled substances on a transnational level with the consent/backing/logistic administration of high level government officials accross the world tightly knit as a closed circle by one common objective:ridiculously constant massive profit margin. Bickering over who's the leader of any cartel with multiple high profile personalities is like arguing who's more important the owner who picks the coach or the coach who picks the quarterback or the quarterback who picks the route that scored the winning touchdown for super bowl so and so. In the end the organization that pits teams against each other read NFL/CIA to keep the masses entertained is the be all end all. Why the hell would the NFL/FEMEXFUT want you to focus on its dirty internal on goings when it feeds you exactly what you want to see.


  36. 4:45 AM
    Totally agree with you. You cant point the finger at one person and say his the master mind behind the whole thing. Its just so much more sophisticated than we can imaging. All the people that are involved in flooding the streets of America with their drugs to just say its that one person doing the whole thing. That's where the media/gov comes in to feed you the info, building it lil by lil till you believe every word that has been said. All the government, police and silent investor that are involved and want to stay clear of any link with those groups by adding a couple faces to it and putting all the blame on them.

    El Pipiri

  37. Both minor600 and 1:53 are right most of you go only by what you read and no one can point a finger and say this is the LEADER. But that is exactly what the true leaders want, they want you discussing the merits of confirmed druglords to side with one or the other because in the end they are still making money. Like 4:45 wrote that who scored the winning goal or the superbowl touchdown is the hero but now that person can barely walk from the beating he took while the owners and the NFL actually made the game, spoon fed it to the masses and reap all the monetary benefits from millions that are hooked into this sport selling t shirts team logos and everything else beside the actual game. So who are the true owners organizers behind the Sinaloa Cartel that is what people should be asking and verbally assasinating.

  38. It's simple-you got a corporation(CDS)-the c.e.o is chapo,the c.f.o(chief finacial officer) is el mayo, and the c.o.o(operatios officer) is el azul.


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