Books and a view

Federal inmate 74505-012 at Northern California's Herlong Correctional Institution works in the kitchen, serving food and sweeping floors. He's four years into his sentence at the minimum-security facility, which has no perimeter fence and feels more like a camp than a prison.

Ward, 64, roams the large yard, takes algebra classes, reads books on American history and enjoys the views of the Sierra Nevada.

He's still alive, even after all the close calls of his extreme smuggling years: mechanical failures at 10,000 feet, days stranded in a sweltering desert, encounters with Alaskan bears, Mexican cops, Colombian guerrillas, shotgun-toting thieves and stingy drug lords.

Some days, he has regrets, but not on this day. After all, a few more years in this relatively genteel setting and he'll be a free man again.

"I'm the absolute luckiest person on Earth," Ward said. "If you're going to put your luck against mine, you haven't got a chance."

richard.marosi@latimes.com

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

Part One: Unraveling Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel

Part Two: The drug trafficker and the psychic

Part Four: Showdown in Sinaloa

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.