By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Asked about why he left his first job, Ensley offered a slightly different version. ”I took a job in California where I could make a little more money,“ he said first. Told that Owens said he was forced out, Ensley said, ”It was my choice to leave.“ Then he added, ”I didn‘t have a problem with the department. I had a problem with a young lady at the time, but I didn’t have a problem with the department.“
Ensley said the ”problem“ grew out of a ”misunderstanding“ -- ”The young lady was attracted to me“ -- but said he‘d proved his innocence. Still, the incident cast a pall over Ensley’s future in law enforcement. Even today, Owens regards Ensley with mistrust. ”You either have personal integrity or you don‘t,“ Owens said. ”I wouldn’t hire him, and I wouldn‘t give him a recommendation anywhere else.“
The internal strife at the Brookings P.D. knocked Ensley out of law enforcement and all the way back to Southern California, where he took a job in construction and set about rebuilding his life. By 1987, at 45 years of age, he’d been promoted to foreman, married his boss‘s daughter and settled down for a life of middle-class tranquillity.
Fate intervened in the most innocent garb. Karen Ensley had a younger sister, and she had a husband, Casiano Valenzuela, a recent immigrant from Mexico. When Casiano broke his leg in a traffic accident, he lost his job; Skip lent a hand, hiring Casiano as a dispatcher despite his broken English. Casiano was earnest and cheerful, and over the next six months the two developed a close bond. It was all in the family.
Toward the end of July, Casiano approached his brother-in-law with a problem. There’d been a shooting involving the Upland police and Casiano‘s brother Raul. Perhaps Skip, as an ex--police officer, could look into it.
The Upland police told Ensley that a narcotics task force had arranged for an undercover buy. The meeting took place just after midnight at a stash house. Something went wrong and, according to officers, the dealer went for his gun. The cop shot three times, and Raul Valenzuela was dead. He had Mexican and American currency in his pocket. His blood showed traces of cocaine.
Ensley relayed the details to Casiano, and helped the family arrange for Raul’s body to be shipped back to Mexico for burial. A week later, Ensley made the trip with his wife, Karen, to Mexico. They flew to Puerto Vallarta, where they were met by Casiano and his wife, Karen‘s sister Kathleen. From there the Ensleys traveled overland, traversing the coastal foothills of the Sierra Madre range to Culiacan. There Ensley learned what most Mexicans already knew: Sinaloa is the seat of the Mexican drug world.
The roots of the trade go back to the late 1800s, when Sinaloan farmers began cultivating opium poppies. When marijuana came into vogue in the 1960s, Sinaloan ranchers raised the stuff and shipped it. When cocaine emerged as the drug of choice, Sinaloa became the favored staging area for the Colombian cartels. In law-enforcement circles, Culiacan was dubbed ”little Medellin.“
With its long tradition and clear economic interest, Sinaloa dispensed early on with whatever moral dilemmas the trade might hold. The unofficial patron saint of the region is Jesus Malverde, a bandit and smuggler killed by the rural police in 1909. Regarded as a sort of Mexican Robin Hood, Malverde is venerated by such titles as El Bandito Generoso, El Angel de los Pobres and El Narcosante -- the Big Drug Saint. A two-story chapel is maintained in his memory near the rail yards in Culiacan, and statues of Malverde are sold in the town square.
Before heading back to the States, Casiano took Ensley on a tour of the family holdings. Along the way, Casiano pointed out an open-sided metal building containing large tables with heat lamps hanging over them. To one side, Casiano lifted the corner of a tarpaulin to show pallets stacked with kilos of cocaine ready for shipping. As Ensley recalls, ”He was letting me know what a big man his brother was in the community there.“
What Ensley realized then, and as federal agents were to document years later, was that the Valenzuelas were a classic Sinaloan smuggling clan. Each of the brothers was involved in the business, each with his own role. Ramon was ”dumb as a post,“ according to Ensley, so he stayed in Mexico and arranged for shipments north. Tony provided muscle, Ensley said. And Luis was the boss.
He wasn’t the eldest of the Valenzuelas, but Luis had the will and the smarts to push the family into the forefront of the trafficking scene. Five-and-a-half-feet tall, afflicted with a limp due to a hip condition he shared with his brothers, Luis could be charming and gracious in the classic Mexican style, but he also had a sudden and volatile temper. One story related in whispers around the family holds that, when Luis‘ wife, Rocio, learned that Raul had been slain, she went to her husband and implored him to leave the drug trade. As Ensley tells it, ”Luis stood up, made a fist and knocked out all her teeth.“ Valenzuela could be generous, but he could also be fearsome.