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.
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.
Dude, I think your guy got busted,” Lopez told Cuevas over the phone. “They’ve got him in handcuffs.”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, Department 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.