Alleged Sinaloa cartel kingpin is extradited to San Diego

Victor Emilio Cazares Gastellum, an alleged onetime top lieutenant in Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel, has been extradited to San Diego, four years after his arrest in connection with one of the largest U.S. investigations ever mounted against the powerful organized crime group.

Cazares, who was flown from the state of Mexico to San Diego on Friday, entered a not guilty plea in federal court Monday and was denied bail.

Cazares, who is believed to be related to Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, allegedly ran a drug trafficking arm of the cartel that linked Colombian cocaine producers with cities across the U.S.

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His vast network of truck drivers, stash house operators, pilots and regional distributors was detailed in a four-part series published by The Times in 2011. The investigation, headed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, resulted in the arrests of more than 400 people across the U.S. and Mexico.

Cazares, 52, was raised in Mexico’s drug trafficking heartland in the Sierra Madre mountains and moved to the Los Angeles suburb of Bell in the 1990s, racking up a few minor drug arrests before moving back to Sinaloa.

He ran his distribution empire from his sprawling ranch in the community of Badiraguato, where he built a palatial home with a twin-towered church, two pools and stables for his dancing horses.

Cazares eluded his pursuers for years after his indictment in 2007, in part by undergoing plastic surgery that made him look younger. He was arrested in April 2012 at a highway checkpoint near Guadalajara.

During Cazares’ years fighting extradition, U.S. and Mexican authorities have kept the pressure on the Sinaloa cartel, most notably with the arrest of Guzman, whose tunnel escape last July and subsequent recapture in January riveted the world.

If Chapo cultivated a defiant bravado that bedeviled authorities, Cazares represented the low-profile, business side of the cartel, more FedEx than "Scarface."

A hands-on manager who kept constant tabs on his shipments, Cazares allegedly oversaw hundreds of distribution rings based in major U.S. cities.

His alleged distributors included a middle-aged American pilot who shuttled cocaine loads from Southern California to Pennsylvania; a long-haul truck driver who rarely made a move without first getting the OK from his psychic in Compton; and Carlos “Charlie” Cuevas, the leader of a crew of 40 drivers and lookouts who smuggled drugs across the border at Calexico in California’s Imperial Valley.

Some of Cazares’ former underlings, including Cuevas, could be potential witnesses if the case goes to trial, though there are signs of a plea agreement in the works.

Jan Ronis, Cazares’ San Diego-based attorney, said Cazares may be open to resolving the case in order to avoid the years-long wait for a trial to proceed. Defendants of Cazares’ stature awaiting trial are often placed in solitary confinement — locked in a cell 23 hours a day — at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in downtown San Diego.

“He’s hoping to resolve the case, if he can resolve it in his best interest,” Ronis said.

The next court hearing is scheduled for April 4.

Cazares was extradited after he exhausted all of his appeals, according to the Mexican attorney general’s office. He is the 221st person extradited to the U.S. during the administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto. Cazares was being held at the maximum security Altiplano Prison outside Mexico City, where Guzman is currently in custody.     

Twitter: @ricardin24

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

3:20 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Cazares' defense attorney.

This article was first posted at 2:50 p.m.

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