Drivers in Mexicali wait to enter the United States at the border crossing… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Calexico, Calif. —
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.
The canines circling the load car that evening in August 2006 were the least of his problems.
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.