Never lose track of the load.
It was drilled into everybody who worked for Carlos “Charlie” Cuevas. His drivers, lookouts, stash house operators, dispatchers -- they all knew. When a shipment was on the move, a pair of eyes had to move with it. Cuevas had just sent a crew of seven men to the border crossing at Calexico, Calif. The load they were tracking was cocaine, concealed in a custom-made compartment inside a blue 2003 Honda Accord.
The car was still on the Mexican side in a 10-lane crush of vehicles inching toward the U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspection station. Amputee beggars worked the queue, along with men in broad-brimmed hats peddling trinkets, tamales and churros.
A lookout watching from a car in a nearby lane reported on the load's progress. Cuevas, juggling cellphones, demanded constant updates. If something went wrong, his boss in Sinaloa, Mexico, would want answers.
The Accord reached the line of inspection booths, and a lookout on the U.S. side picked up the surveillance. He was Roberto Daniel Lopez, an Iraq War veteran, standing near the “Welcome to Calexico” sign.
It was the usual plan: After clearing customs, the driver would head for Los Angeles, shadowed by a third lookout waiting in a car on South Imperial Avenue.
But on this hot summer evening, things were not going according to plan. Lopez called his supervisor to report a complication: The Accord was being directed to a secondary inspection area for a closer look. Drug-sniffing dogs were circling.
Cuevas rarely talked directly to his lookouts or drivers. But after being briefed by the supervisor, he made an exception. He called Lopez.
“What's happening?” he asked.
“The dogs are going crazy,” Lopez replied.
Dots on a map
Cuevas worked for the Sinaloa cartel, Mexico's most powerful organized crime group. He was in the transportation side of the business. Drugs were brought from Sinaloa state to Mexicali, Mexico, in bus tires. Cuevas' job was to move the goods across the border and deliver them to distributors in the Los Angeles area, about 200 miles away.
The flow was unceasing, and he employed about 40 drivers, lookouts and coordinators to keep pace.
The canines circling the load car that evening in August 2006 were the least of his problems. Eight agents from a Drug Enforcement Administration task force had converged on the border. Not even U.S. customs inspectors knew they were there. The agents had been following Cuevas and tapping his phones for months.
The canines circling the load car that evening in August 2006 were the least of his problems.
Because he was a key link between U.S. and Mexican drug distributors, his phone chatter was an intelligence gusher. Each call exposed another contact, whose phone was then tapped as well. The new contacts called other associates, leading to more taps. Soon the agents had sketched a vast, connect-the-dots map of the distribution network.
Its branches spanned the U.S. and were believed to lead back to Mexico's drug-trafficking heartland, to Victor Emilio Cazares, said to be a top lieutenant of Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman, the most wanted trafficker in the world. From his mansion outside Culiacan, Cazares allegedly oversaw the network of smugglers, distributors, truckers, pilots and stash house operators.
Other DEA investigations had targeted Mexican cartels, but this one, dubbed Operation Imperial Emperor, was providing the most complete picture of how drugs moved from Sinaloa to U.S. streets.
DEA officials were in no hurry to wrap it up. In fact, they were holding off on arrests so they could continue to study the supply chain and identify new suspects.
Imperial Emperor would eventually result in hundreds of arrests, the seizure of tens of millions of dollars in drugs and money, and the indictment of Cazares.
It would also reveal a disheartening truth: The cartel's U.S. distribution system was bigger and more resilient than anyone had imagined, a spider web connecting dozens of cities, constantly regenerating and expanding.
The guy next door
As a U.S. Marine in Fallouja, Iraq, Lopez had dodged mortar fire, navigated roads mined with explosives and received a commendation for leadership. Back home in El Centro, he couldn't even get work reading meters for the local irrigation district.
But Lopez, who had two children to support, knew another industry was always hiring.
One of the Sinaloa cartel's main pipelines runs through the antiquated U.S. port of entry at Calexico, a favorite of smugglers. The inspection station sits almost directly on the border, without the usual buffer zone of several hundred feet, so inspectors have difficulty examining cars in the approach lanes. Drug-sniffing dogs wilt in summer heat that can reach 115 degrees.
California's southeastern corner, a region of desert dunes and agricultural fields with the highest unemployment rate in the state, offered fertile ground for cartel recruiting.
Smugglers were your next-door neighbor, the guy ringing you up at Wal-Mart, the big tipper at Applebee's, the old friend at your high school reunion.
Lopez was friends with a man named Sergio Kaiser, who had married into his family. Kaiser said he owned a body shop, but his tastes seemed too flamboyant for that. He was building a house with a grand staircase modeled on the mansion in the movie “Scarface.”
In reality, Kaiser was Cuevas' top lieutenant, and he told Lopez he could help him with his money troubles. There were several possibilities.
For a night's work driving a load car from Mexicali to Los Angeles, a driver shared $5,000 with his recruiter and got to keep the car.
Another entry-level position was as a lookout. One kind of lookout followed the load car from the stash house in Mexicali to the border. Another stood watch at the port of entry and reported when the car had cleared customs. Yet another tailed the load car up the freeway to Los Angeles.
Lopez accepted Kaiser's offer. Being a lookout was harmless, he figured: Just stand there and watch a car cross the border. “[He] didn't say it involved drugs, but I knew,” Lopez said. “I thought, 'What's the big deal?'“
When you think of drug cartels, you think violence, guns, killing. This guy was nothing like that.”
Tricks of the trade
Cuevas owned a large tract home in Calexico and drove a late-model BMW 323. A gold chain dangled from his thick neck. Married with two children, he enjoyed the cliched perks of a smuggler's life. He went through several mistresses, treating them to breast-enhancement surgeries and trips to Disneyland and San Francisco.
He would ride his pricey sand rail in the Baja California dunes, and he always picked up the tab at restaurants or on wild weekends across the border in Mexicali.
At Emmanuel's barber shop, Cuevas would jump the line to get his “fade” haircut, then pay for everybody else's trim. He took care of friends' hospital bills and lent people money, no strings attached.
“When you think of drug cartels, you think violence, guns, killing,” Lopez said in an interview. “This guy was nothing like that.”
He didn't carry weapons or surround himself with enforcers. Constantly juggling phones and buying packaging materials from Costco, he seemed more stressed out than intimidating. Cuevas had a stutter, and it worsened when his boss Cazares called from Sinaloa. He took antacids to calm an anxious stomach.
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.
Cuevas sent the cars to a mechanic in Compton who outfitted the compartments with elaborate trapdoors. The jobs took two weeks and the mechanic charged as much as $6,500, but it was worth it. Only a complicated series of actions could spring the doors open.
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.
After midnight outside Cuevas' home, the agents started digging through his garbage cans. They were searching for a notepad, a receipt, a business card, anything with a phone number on it.
There was enough evidence to arrest Cuevas. But the goal was to expand the investigation, and that required resuming the phone surveillance. Agents hoped Cuevas had thrown away the numbers of some -- even one -- of the 30 new cellphones he had just distributed to his crew.
Sifting through trash was always a filthy chore, especially so in this case. Cuevas was the father of a newborn. The agents were elbow-deep in dirty diapers.
Finally, they pulled something from the muck. It was a piece of spiral notebook paper with numbers scrawled on it. Phone numbers.
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.