Profit margins at the wholesale level were staggering: One ton of cocaine, after transportation costs, could yield $5.4 million. Over three years, Cazares had allegedly smuggled an estimated 40 tons into the U.S., generating more than $200 million in profit.
And that created another logistical challenge: getting the money back to Mexico.
That was handled by Cazares' sister, according to federal agents and an indictment filed by Los Angeles County prosecutors. Blanca, a society-page fixture in Culiacan nicknamed "the Empress," allegedly controlled currency-changing houses in Tijuana and other border cities, where drug proceeds sent via courier from Southern California were converted to pesos. The cash was divided into amounts of less than $10,000 and deposited in banks along the border.
Blanca Cazares could withdraw or transfer the funds at will, distributing profits to associates, distributors and her brother.
In the mid-1990s, Victor Cazares was an illegal immigrant with big dreams living in a run-down cottage in the city of Bell, southeast of Los Angeles.
When police arrested him with a baggie of drugs, he said he worked as a $50-a-day landscaper and admitted a fondness for cocaine. He vowed to quit.
"The defendant's plans are to work and become a Christian," his probation officer wrote in his report.
By 2005, Cazares had moved back to his homeland, where he kept one of his promises by building a church on his 25-acre estate in Mexico's historical drug-trafficking heartland of Badiraguato, outside Culiacan. He cultivated a reputation as a generous gentleman rancher, and the Mexican government gave him more than $129,000 in subsidies to raise cattle.
Cazares trucked in locals to harvest his fields of tomato, pepper, eggplant and squash, paying them twice the normal wage.
"He was a good neighbor. He gave people work. He'd pass by, wave a greeting," said Guadalupe Rubio, who lives in a village near the hacienda.
Cazares allegedly was a primary distributor for Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman, the Sinaloa cartel's leader and the most wanted trafficker in the world.
Yet in many ways, he acted more like a vice president of shipping for a U.S. manufacturing firm, obsessing over logistics and cost control.
While cartel soldiers waged war in Mexican border cities, killing hundreds of rivals and police officers, workers in the U.S. primed the drug pipeline in anonymity, driving small cars, renting modest houses and leading low-profile, generally peaceful lives.
Spilling blood on U.S. streets was avoided. Disputes were taken care of in Mexico, where discipline or vengeance could be meted out in the lawless countryside outside Culiacan.
By 2006, the money was pouring in, and Cazares tried to track every penny, the DEA investigation found. He called key associates in the U.S. at all hours and took weekly inventories of cocaine shipments moving across the country.
When authorities intercepted cocaine or money, Cazares demanded that subordinates produce proof of seizure: news clippings, police reports, court documents. If the seizure resulted from good police work, the load was written off as a cost of doing business. If it was deemed the fault of the distributor, Cazares demanded compensation.
Determining fault sometimes required extreme methods, or at least close interrogation. In such cases, Cazares called meetings at his estate, as he did after the March 2006 bust near Los Angeles.
Cuevas had arranged delivery of three cocaine loads from Mexicali to a distribution cell in Paramount. The cell was overseen from Mexico by a man known to his subordinates only as Gato, Spanish for "cat."