A few hours after the delivery, police raided the cell's stash house.
Eligio "Pescado" Rios, who ran the stash house, fled to Mexico to avoid arrest. Once across the border, he was captured by cartel enforcers. Believing he might have caused the bust through carelessness or deliberate betrayal, they tied him to a bed and beat him for several days.
Afterward, Cazares was no closer to understanding why the raid had happened. So Cuevas was summoned for questioning. Perhaps the answers would help determine who should pay for the seized drugs and whether anyone else deserved a beating, or worse.
Walking through Cazares' mansion, Cuevas marveled at the gleaming glass living-room floor that sat over an indoor-outdoor pool. Cazares took special pride in parading his dancing horses, and children could frolic in a playground filled with swing sets and climbing structures.
Cazares and Cuevas were joined by a third man who wasn't introduced and who remained silent.
Cazares began grilling Cuevas about the Paramount bust, suggesting that someone from his cell had been followed or had turned informant.
He said that according to Gato, Cuevas' crew was at fault.
Cuevas blamed Gato.
At which point, Cazares introduced the silent man next to him: Gato.
A heated argument ensued.
Cuevas' drivers had delivered the drugs, but Gato's stash house operator had received the shipment. Neither man wanted to be on the hook for $3.3 million.
Cazares eventually stepped in.
He seemed impressed with Cuevas' mettle. After all, Cuevas had traveled to Sinaloa knowing he might not return, and he'd stood up for his crew, even the ones too frightened to travel with him.
In the end, Cazares decided not to impose any punishment. It was the practical, business-over-bloodshed approach that exemplified the cartel's distribution side. He needed Gato and Cuevas to continue working together, to keep the drugs flowing. And Cuevas still owed him money for past seizures.
Intimidation did have its place, however. Before Cuevas was allowed to go home to California, he was shown the room where Rios had been beaten. The mattress was still bloody.
Time to move
When Cuevas returned to Calexico, the DEA resumed its surveillance of him. For more than a year, the operation had provided valuable intelligence, but now agents worried that their cover had been blown.
A car dealer in San Diego who fixed the brakes on Cuevas' BMW had alerted him that agents had installed a tracking device in his car.
Fearing that Cuevas would flee the country — he had been house-hunting in Culiacan — the task force decided to move in. On the morning of Jan. 20, 2007, a SWAT team broke down Cuevas' back door and arrested him in his underwear. About two dozen members of his crew were arrested that day and in a raid the following month.
A series of sweeps targeted other players in the supply chain, from South Gate to the South Bronx. In all, authorities charged 402 people, seized 18 tons of cocaine and marijuana and $51 million in cash and property during the 20 months of Operation Imperial Emperor.