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
Bunes was a natural street operator, aware and cautious, and he foiled task-force surveillance teams and even helicopter spies. ”Bunes was like a ghost,“ Gene Johns said later. Added George Eliot, ”We threw the kitchen sink at the guy investigatively, and he was just very good.“
Still, they were able to listen in on his phone. During one typical two-week period, Bunes alone made 295 calls to 47 different cell phones, as well as 128 calls to 21 different pagers. The lower-level operators were strictly segregated. Some handled dope, while others counted and transported money, and most knew only one or two members of the organization. There were several women involved, usually tasked with locating suburban homes to buy or lease as stash houses for money or drugs.
Key players began to emerge. On September 19, Luis received a call telling him ”the bosses“ were lowering the price of the cocaine he was moving. It was later identified as the first recorded contact from Jorge Castro, Valenzuela‘s primary connection with the Tijuana cartel. Castro, in turn, had an associate dubbed ”Robocop.“ Task-force agents say Mexican traffickers often use the term Robocop to designate the enforcer in a given cell.
The first big success came as task-force agents monitored two of Castro’s money handlers. The pair were less crafty on the phone than Valenzuela‘s crew, and agents soon identified their stash house. Toward the end of November, the agents overheard one tell his girlfriend Emma that he had ”three“ with him. ”Emma asked if he meant 3 million dollars. He said yes.“ a
The team staking out the stash house moved the following day, and seized $2,674,000 in cash, an AR-15 rifle and two handguns. It was a sizable haul, but there was more: a set of ledgers that laid out for the first time the size and scope of the smuggling operation. As described in court papers, the ledgers indicated ”this organization distributed approximately 7,000 kilograms of cocaine and took possession of tens of millions of dollars“ to ship back to Mexico. Further, the ledgers showed the Valenzuela cell was just one of seven separate organizations. Each had placed orders for hundreds of kilos and remitted millions of dollars through Castro, Valenzuela and their associates.
Rather than tip the traffickers off to the wiretap investigation, the task force released the money handlers without charges. The taps led to a string of seizures in the early months of 1998. On January 23, a car carrying 50 kilos was trailed to a garage in La Puente, where Sheriff’s deputies confiscated 411 kilos -- close to half a ton of pure cocaine. Four days later, a raid netted $310,000 and 30 kilos. In early February, stash cars were intercepted en route to Mexico with more than $3 million. Two more busts in February yielded 400 kilos.
Most of the seizures came without anyone‘s being arrested -- when money was involved, drivers were released once they relinquished any claim to the cash. But several busts netted the midlevel, wholesale customers of the cartel. One was a substitute schoolteacher, nailed with a 50-kilo load. Another was an Orange County resident named Art Romo, who claimed to be a reformed gang member and had helped institute a truce among street gangs in Santa Ana. Romo was sentenced to 20 years in state prison.
Yet even as the agents cracked down, the goal of breaking the smuggling operation seemed only to grow more distant. Castro himself had retreated to Mexico, communicating with his lieutenants in the U.S. through encrypted cell-phone calls, using sophisticated voice-scrambling technology the task-force agents could not break.
In February, agents were reminded again how small a slice Castro and Valenzuela controlled of the Southern California trafficking scene. Wiretaps briefly picked up the trail of a money handler identified only as ”Efrain,“ who was collecting ”approximately $500,000 on a more or less daily basis . . . for several large narcotics-trafficking organizations which may be entirely independent of and as large as the Jefe organization.“ After one of his loads was popped on for $2.1 million, Efrain ditched his phone and dropped out of sight. For the task-force agents, it was like looking at a star through a telescope, only to find the star was just a satellite, dwarfed in its own solar system.
Perhaps most striking about the smugglers was their perseverance. With loads and runners getting picked off on nearly a weekly basis, Luis Valenzuela and the other cell heads simply increased the pace. By March, Valenzuela was importing two load cars a day, each laden with between 50 and 100 kilos of cocaine, which he sold for as much as $15,000 apiece.
In May 1998, still another car packed with cash was seized near the Mexican border. Several days later, agents listened in as Jorge Castro called Valenzuela from Mexico to discuss what might have gone wrong. After a moment, Castro handed the phone to his ”boss,“ presumably a ranking figure in the Arellano-Felix cartel, perhaps one of the brothers themselves. As the manager responsible for a series of costly arrests, Valenzuela might have expected a dire threat. But the tone of the conversation was sheer empathy.
The boss asked if Valenzuela was ready to handle more shipments of cocaine. Yes, Valenzuela said, everything was ready. Then, ”God willing,“ the boss said, the shipments would go through. Valenzuela assured his boss that he would always do his best. The cartel leader answered that he’d like to meet with Valenzuela in the near future, and concluded by vowing, ”They would help each other out as best they could.“