Sunday, November 16, 2008
The involvement of the top four Mexican drug-trafficking organizations in distribution and money-laundering on U.S. soil has brought a war once dismissed as a foreign affair to the doorstep of local communities.
Residents of the quiet Beaver Hills subdivision in Lilburn, Ga., an Atlanta suburb, awoke to the trans-border crime wave in July, when a brigade of well-armored federal and state police officers surrounded a two-story colonial home at 755 East Fork Shady Drive, ordered neighbors to lock their doors and flushed out three men described as members of a Mexican drug cartel. One was captured after he tried to slip down a storm drain. Another was caught in the ivy in Pete Bogerd's backyard. He lives two doors up and is president of the neighborhood association.
"It blew us away," Bogerd said. "I didn't know we had that many cops."
A short while later, police hauled out a 31-year-old from the Dominican Republic who for nearly a week had been chained and tortured inside the basement, allegedly for not paying a $300,000 drug debt.
In the months after, several dozen suspects have been charged with moving drugs and money for Mexican traffickers through Atlanta, which has emerged as an important hub for thriving narcotics markets in the Eastern United States.
Few regions of the nation have been immune -- even Anchorage reported activity by the Tijuana drug cartel led by the Arellano Felix family, according to federal law enforcement agencies.
In suburban San Diego, six men believed to be part of a rogue faction of the Arellano Felix organization have been accused in connection with as many as a dozen murders and 20 kidnappings over a three-year span.
Last month, three armed men disguised as police officers broke into a Las Vegas home, tied up a woman and her boyfriend and abducted the woman's 6-year-old boy. Authorities said the men were tied to a Mexican drug smuggling operation and were trying to recoup proceeds allegedly stolen by the child's grandfather. The boy, Cole Puffinburger, was found unharmed three days later. Federal authorities have charged his grandfather, Clemons Fred Tinnemeyer, with racketeering, after he allegedly mailed $60,000, believed to be drug proceeds, from Mississippi to Nevada. Police continue to search for the kidnappers.
In September, authorities announced that 175 alleged members of Mexico's Gulf cartel had been rounded up across the country and abroad. Of those, 43 had been active in the Atlanta area, they said.
The arrests were part of Project Reckoning, an 18-month investigation that tracked criminal activity in the U.S. by the Mexican cartels. All told, Project Reckoning authorities have arrested 507 people and seized more than $60 million in cash, 16,000 kilograms of cocaine, half a ton of methamphetamine, 19 pounds of heroin and 51 pounds of marijuana.
Last month federal authorities in Atlanta announced indictments against 41 people they said were trafficking drugs and laundering money for Mexican cartels. Among those netted in Operation Pay Cut were a former deputy sheriff from Texas who was stopped on a Georgia highway with nearly $1 million in cash in his pickup.
The footprints of Mexican smuggling operations are on all but two states, Vermont and West Virginia, according to federal reports. Mexican organizations affiliated with the so-called Federation were identified in 82 cities, mostly in the Southwest, according to an April report by the National Drug Intelligence Center, an arm of the Department of Justice.
Elements of the Juarez cartel were identified in at least 44 cities, from West Texas to Minneapolis. Gulf cartel affiliates were operating in at least 43 cities from South Texas to Buffalo, N.Y. And the Tijuana cartel, active in at least 20 U.S. cities, is extending its network from San Diego to Seattle and Anchorage.
Many cities showed evidence of multiple cartels, according to the report, which was based on federal, state and local law enforcement reporting.
The extent and depth of cartel activity was not specified, but the Drug Enforcement Administration told Congress two years ago that it believed Mexican-based trafficking organizations "now have command and control over the drug trade and are starting to show the hallmarks of organized crime, such as organizing into distinct cells with subordinate cells that operate throughout the United States."
The Congressional Research Service last year reported that in the U.S. the cartels "maintain some level of coordination and cooperation among their various operating areas, moving labor and materials to the various sites, even across the country as needed."
Chuck Miller, an NDIC spokesman, said it remained difficult to determine why and how the cartels chose specific urban regions.
"It could be one of them may know someone in one part of the country, and have established routes for up there," Miller said. "It could be geographic locations that are operating in Mexico or adjacent to other areas. Or there could be affiliations with individuals residing in specific locations."
A rogue operation
In one case in San Diego, a rogue faction of the Arellano Felix operation moved into Southern California in 2002, and began kidnapping and shaking down people believed to be working as smugglers and launderers for Mexican traffickers.
Court documents show it operated for several years without attracting concerted action from law enforcement, amassing a fortune that helped pay for equipment that included fake badges and police lights and uniforms.
Officers familiar with the case believe the group, known as Los Palillos, or the Toothpicks, killed a dozen people, committed as many as 20 kidnappings and trafficked methamphetamine to Kansas City, Mo., to finance its war with the cartel in Tijuana -- all from a base in San Diego County.
The group was shut down by authorities last year, when one victim's family reported the abduction. Two of six alleged members went on trial last month.
They face charges related to the kidnapping of Eduardo Gonzalez Tostado, the son of an Ensenada banker. Gonzalez, 32, lived in Chula Vista and fit the profile of the Palillos' prey: a relatively well-to-do Mexican entrepreneur who had taken refuge over the border.
Gonzalez, a well-known champion Baja California desert off-road racer, testified that he owned a car dealership and a trucking firm in Chula Vista and a seafood restaurant in Tijuana.
Defense attorneys, citing transcripts and FBI interviews, alleged that he had been under federal investigation and that he had smuggled drugs for the cartel, according to court documents. A Times check found no evidence of businesses operating at the addresses listed on licenses.
Gonzalez testified in a San Diego court that he is not associated with the Arellano Felix cartel and had never kidnapped, smuggled drugs or laundered money. He could not be contacted for comment.
Gonzalez testified that over eight days, he was handcuffed, blindfolded and shocked with a Taser stun gun while his kidnappers negotiated for a million-dollar ransom. (Agents confiscated a Taser at the house that matched scars on Gonzalez's back, according to court records.)
FBI agents planted an electronic beacon in the ransom money, which led them to the Chula Vista cul-de-sac, where they freed Gonzalez.
The spare tire case
In tiny Pearsall, Texas, just outside San Antonio, a tow-truck driver was abducted and taken across the border last year by thugs allegedly connected to Mexican drug traffickers.
The men reportedly were angered at the disappearance of drug profits they had hidden in a spare tire of a car the driver had towed from an accident on Interstate 35, the main thoroughfare from San Antonio to the border city of Laredo. A federal grand jury in San Antonio indicted five men in April in connection with the international kidnapping.
The indictment said the defendants were offered as much as $15,000 to bring the driver to Mexico, court records show. They lured him to Frio County Regional Park in Pearsall by phoning in a fake request for a tow, then bundled him off to Piedras Negras, where he was "tortured and interrogated about the missing spare tire" and held for a week, the indictment alleged.
The assailants phoned his boss and threatened to "cut the head off of the driver" unless the supervisor brought the missing money to Eagle Pass, Texas, across the Rio Grande from Piedras Negras.
U.S. authorities were alerted, and after intense negotiations, the driver was released at the port of entry in Del Rio, Texas, upriver from Eagle Pass. The five men were arrested and are to stand trial in San Antonio on Monday.
A toast to St. Death
Cartel members also have pleaded guilty in federal court this year as part of a murder-for-hire and kidnapping ring that stretched from the Rio Grande to North Texas.
Several men and two teenage boys on this side of the border were killed as part of a war that pitted the Gulf cartel against the Sinaloa cartel over the lucrative drug trafficking to North Texas and beyond. Hit men were paid in drugs and cash to help carry out the slayings, according to court documents.
Police in the U.S. learned about the abductions when the parents of the two boys, the youngest 14 years old, reported them missing. The investigation ended when one of the accused killers, Gabriel Cardona-Ramirez, also known as "Pelon" and "Gaby," bragged about how the boys were crying when he slashed them to death with a broken bottle, then poured their blood into a cup for a toast.
"Poom! The little cup [drink]! Poom!" Cardona-Ramirez boasted on a federal wiretap planted at a cartel hide-out on Orange Blossom Loop in Laredo. His words were translated into English for U.S. court officials. "I filled it with blood and poom! I dedicated it to La Santisima Muerte" -- St. Death.
Here in Georgia, the case of the man held in the basement on East Fork Shady Drive is indicative of how "these traffickers unleash ruthless forms of violence in order to protect and defend their drugs and cash," said Rodney G. Benson, DEA special agent-in-charge in Atlanta.
Jay S. Mortenson, also a DEA special agent, said officers surrounded the house after the hostage's wife phoned them from Rhode Island. She said cartel members came up with a ruse to have him bring the title of a newly purchased vehicle to Georgia, and when he arrived in July they abducted him over a $300,000 drug debt.
When officers burst inside they found the husband, Oscar Reynoso, in the basement, chained at his ankles. His mouth was gagged with black tape.
Unbound, Reynoso began talking. Mortenson said he told officers he delivered the title to the cartel members at a Waffle House restaurant in Duluth, Ga., and then was driven to East Fork Shady Drive. Taken into the kitchen, he was surrounded; one of the assailants pointed him out as "the thief who stole the money."
Three men who tried to flee the house during the raid face criminal charges in connection with the abduction and extortion scheme.
In addition, Reynoso was charged with distributing cocaine, after he admitted he had dealt drugs and owed the money to the cartel, Mortenson said.
The home at 755 East Fork Shady Drive was vacant because the owners had moved and could not find a buyer. Today it stands as a reminder to Beaver Hills residents of how far the drug wars in Mexico have come.
"I hope we don't have anything more like this," said Barbara Park, who lives across the street in a cul-de-sac. "It was pretty scary, and we have a nice neighborhood."
Serrano and Quinones are Times staff writers.