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
Skip Ensley could not have looked more conspicuous standing outside a small stone church on the outskirts of Culiacan in central Mexico one August afternoon in 1987. Ruddy-faced behind a full, wiry beard, the beefy 6-foot-4 Ensley dwarfed the mourners who crowded around him, there to bury Raul Valenzuela, slain at the age of 23, another casualty of the drug war.
He watched with a mixture of fear and fascination as the casket passed by, borne by Raul’s brothers and cousins, each with revolvers stuffed in their belts. Ensley had come as a friend of the family -- a brother-in-law, in fact -- but the Valenzuela clan could not guarantee his safety at the cemetery, where the funeral procession would present an easy target for rival traffickers. Ensley and his wife, Karen, chose to stay behind.
Still, Ensley felt a growing excitement, even a sense of mission, as the smugglers‘ caravan made its way onto the rutted dirt road that led past the church. Several years before, he’d been forced out of his first job, as a police officer in Oregon, and had reluctantly left behind the ambitions of a lifetime. Now, in the rugged highlands of Sinaloa, the coastal state that is home to the most enterprising and ruthless smugglers in the Mexican drug trade, Ensley had stumbled onto a case that could resurrect his career.
For the next 11 years, Ensley built his life around the pursuit of Luis Valenzuela, the head of the family trafficking business and a ranking lieutenant in the notorious Arellano-Felix drug cartel. Working primarily with the FBI but also with the DEA and local authorities, Ensley socialized with Valenzuela at family functions and enticed him into partnership schemes, serving as a steady conduit for information on Valenzuela‘s movements as he imported and distributed thousands of kilos of cocaine. Over the course of his collaboration with the Southwest Border Task Force, the FBI paid Ensley more than $30,000 in fees and expenses.
It was a bargain for the government. Tracking Valenzuela opened a window on the single largest cartel moving drugs across America’s border with Mexico. In 1997, a decade after the funeral for Raul Valenzuela, the investigation moved into high gear. The task force monitored Luis and his organization through extensive wiretaps, a phone bank of interpreters, and a team of more than 10 officers and agents. Over the next 18 months, agents confiscated nearly 4 tons of cocaine and more than $15 million in cash. As the totals mounted, Ensley looked forward to a personal windfall, based on government assurances that he would collect a bounty of 10 percent of all the seized currency.
Operation Rio Blanco culminated in June 1998 with the arrest of Jorge Castro, a Valenzuela associate identified by the U.S. Attorney‘s Office as ”one of the highest-level narcotraffickers ever arrested in the United States.“ But just as Ensley prepared to celebrate, he found himself abandoned. Luis Valenzuela and most of his associates escaped the government dragnet, and Ensley’s cover as an informant was blown.
Rather than collect the $1 million--plus he figured should be his reward, Ensley was advised by the FBI to lease a recreational vehicle and go into hiding. The government initially sent him monthly checks of $5,000, but the funds soon dwindled, to $2,000, then to zero. Ensley has been on the lam ever since. The agents he worked with stopped returning his phone calls, and his wife‘s family shunned him. Most galling to Ensley, Luis Valenzuela himself continued to ply his trade.
This summer, Ensley filed a lawsuit against the FBI, claiming the government bilked him out of his just rewards. His work for the task force is documented in sworn statements made by federal agents to support wiretap applications, but the lawsuit stands on shaky ground, as federal agencies enjoy extensive legal privileges. Still, Ensley said he sued as a means to express his umbrage, at how he was treated personally, and over the government’s failure to arrest Luis Valenzuela. ”Not only did they not do what they said they would do for us, but they didn‘t work hard enough on this case,“ Ensley said during one of several interviews with the Weekly.
Ensley may also simply have trouble accepting defeat. Almost from the moment he met him, Ensley considered Luis Valenzuela his ticket to personal and professional redemption. Ensley invested his time, his standing within his family, much of his energy and all of his aspirations into what he terms the case of a lifetime. But the high-stakes world of the drug trade proved a tough place to find salvation. Ensley tried to play the game by his own rules, only to wind up frustrated, alienated and alone. Said a close friend who watched the whole affair transpire, ”If I was Skip, I’d go find a hole and crawl into it.“
Skip Ensley keeps a photo of his father hanging on the wall in the jumbled office in the suburban home he shares with his wife, Karen, three dogs and a cat. The photo dates from the 1950s, when Ensley‘s dad was an officer with the Corona, California, Police Department. Avery D. Ensley is pictured in a drab olive uniform, slim and almost boyish, his hat cocked, his face lit by a wry smile.
The photo is a timepiece, harking back to days when crooks were smalltime and cops walked with an easy swagger. It says a lot about how the younger Ensley likes to see the world, and something about how he fell out of sync with the Southwest Border Task Force. Most cops are committed people who identify with their work and believe in it, but Skip -- he shares his father’s name, but he never uses it -- seems to take it to an extreme, like someone afraid you won‘t believe him.
He keeps the evidence in plain view. Aside from the photo of his dad, the walls near his desk are crowded with snapshots of Skip in various uniforms and Skip in undercover guise -- on a motorcycle, by a pool table in a bar. They share space with badges, framed certificates and ID cards. It would pass for collected memorabilia, but it might also suggest a certain degree of obsession, especially considering his dogged quest to arrest the trafficker who now haunts him.
Outside the confines of his office, Ensley is always quick to make it clear where he’s coming from. ”I felt he carried his badge on his shoulder all the time,“ said Dick Volkman, a newspaper editor who got to know Ensley in the middle 1990s. ”He was very much into the culture of law enforcement.“
His friends describe Ensley as ”a very driven person,“ so driven that ”I don‘t know why his wife puts up with it.“ Skip himself has a ready explanation for what goads him. Of his drive to land work as a police officer, he said, ”I had to do that for my own sense of who I was.“ Of his pursuit of Luis Valenzuela: ”I asked myself, how am I to honor my father’s memory?“
Skip Ensley started hanging around police stations before he started shaving, tagging along with his dad, and with his stepmother, who he says was the first female police officer ever sworn to duty in California. By the time he was 14 years old, Skip was filling in weekend shifts as a dispatch operator. He laughs as he recalls watching through a peephole while detectives conducted interviews -- ”This was back before civil rights.“ And he learned to admire his dad‘s ability to rationalize and dissemble. ”He could talk his way into or out of anything,“ Ensley said.
It’s a trait that Ensley‘s father passed on to his son. ”Skip is a real talker,“ said one a former cop who’s kept in touch for more than 20 years. ”He calls, and he tells me his stories. I don‘t say a whole lot. I just listen.“ Some regard Ensley’s stories with skepticism. As Volkman put it, ”He always had some tall tale of what he had accomplished.“
The wall of words, and the constant element of doubt, make Ensley hard to pin down. He talks a lot about principles -- ”I thought people in law enforcement were supposed to keep their word,“ he groused at one point -- but his own record includes a 1987 judgment against him for back child support. And he complains about ”all the times they put me in danger,“ but freely admits prodding the FBI to authorize risky, solo trips to Mexico.
Still, the bluster and the easy self-assurance made Ensley a natural for working undercover. He‘s changeable, brave to the point of reckless, and relentless. ”He just keeps on going,“ said his longtime friend, describing Ensley’s ability to ingratiate himself with potential targets. ”He can take a lot of abuse and a lot of rejection, and he doesn‘t even realize it’s rejection.“
Ensley learned another lesson from his father that helped prepare him for the treacherous business of befriending, and then betraying, the subjects of criminal investigation. ”My father always told me, there are no sacred cows,“ Ensley said.
Skip demonstrated what that mantra meant to him during his first stint as a police officer, in Brookings, Oregon, a small coastal town just north of the California border. His father was up visiting and had driven out on his own to find a bar. Late that evening, Skip got a call at home -- a fellow officer had stopped Ensley senior for driving under the influence; as a favor, the officer called to let Skip handle the transgression. Skip donned his uniform, headed out to the scene, took a look at his father and promptly placed him under arrest. ”No sacred cows,“ Ensley said as he recounted the tale. ”Dad taught me that, and it was good enough for me.“
But if Ensley modeled himself after his father, his career in law enforcement took a more tortuous path. Around 1982, after eight years on the job, Ensley left Oregon under a cloud. ”He was asked to leave or he would have been terminated,“ said Ken Owens, a fellow patrol officer with Ensley and now the county sheriff there. ”There was an allegation that he was romantically involved with a young dispatcher. It was one of those kind of departures.“
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.
Ensley was treated to warm hospitality during his stay in Sinaloa, embraced as a member of the family. Through it all, Ensley played the role of newfound friend, the man who helped wrest Raul’s remains from hostile authorities in the U.S. But on his first day back in the United States, Ensley went straight to the Riverside office of the FBI.
If Ensley had any qualms about his hazardous new venture, it was over his wife‘s misgivings -- he’d promised her that his law-enforcement days were over. But Karen Ensley felt violated as well by her sudden proximity to the drug trade, and quietly accepted Skip‘s decision to join the drug war. Referring to her sister, Karen said, ”She didn’t know she was marrying a drug dealer, and I didn‘t know being an ex-cop means now and forever.“
The supervisor of the FBI office in Riverside was Doug Aukland, a veteran agent nearing the end of his career. Aukland was wary when Skip Ensley explained how the unlikely combination of his second marriage and a police shooting had brought him to a Mexican trafficker’s funeral. Aukland warned Ensley of the dangers involved, and of the strain an undercover investigation would put on his family. But Aukland didn‘t know Ensley’s story -- the father he idolized, the department he‘d been cast out from -- and he finally gave in to Ensley’s gung-ho attitude. According to Ensley‘s longtime friend, ”Skip thought they would button up the whole [Valenzuela] family and they’d be in jail and he‘d be the good guy.“
For the next four years, Ensley worked closely with Aukland to bring Luis Valenzuela to justice. Ensley let Valenzuela set the pace, never pressing Luis to divulge his business dealings. ”You can’t ever ask them anything before they tell you,“ Ensley explained. ”But then when I started doing minor things for the family, we developed a friendship and trust that you don‘t get out of the clear blue sky.“
When his brother Tony was arrested for smuggling heroin, Luis called on Skip to help arrange bail. When Luis was thinking about investing in property, he’d ask Skip to assess the deal. Along the way, Ensley provided the FBI with Valenzuela‘s address and phone numbers -- he a maintained a modest home in Ontario, and owned restaurants in Upland and Montclair -- and identified several of his associates.
Progress was slow. ”He was too damn slick,“ Ensley grumbled. ”They would surveil him for weeks and come up with nothing.“ The investigation came to a head in October 1991, when a local police department caught a girlfriend of Valenzuela’s with several kilos of cocaine. The bust triggered a search of all the homes and businesses law enforcement had tied to Valenzuela. Luis himself was arrested for possession of a kilo of cocaine, but he denied any connection to the stuff, and the officers couldn‘t make the charge stick.
It was the end of the line. ”Aukland spelled it out for me,“ Ensley said. ”They were going to move on to easier cases. He said there were other agencies working on Luis, and that somewhere down the line he was going to screw up, but they couldn’t put any more time in.“ The decision left Ensley frustrated and angry. ”All they‘re looking for is their stats,“ he said of the federal agents on the task force. ”Seizures and money is what they’re all about. They‘re not interested in the tough cases.“ It was the beginning of Ensley’s growing disdain for the government.
Aukland, however, was an exception. ”He was the most honest, straightforward man I ever dealt with,“ Ensley said. For his part, Aukland admired Ensley‘s skill in cultivating Valenzuela, and the agent came to regard Skip as a personal friend.
It proved a valuable connection. The early 1990s were a time of rapid expansion in the nation’s war on drugs, and hundreds of new task forces had been established across the country. Staffed by federal agents, local authorities and freelancers who specialized in working undercover, the task forces were virtually autonomous, funded largely through the drug profits they seized.
It was the perfect opening for Ensley to return to the law-enforcement fold. ”I always felt bad about leaving the department“ in Brookings, Ensley said. Being a cop remained his life‘s ambition. ”That’s what I was put on this earth to do.“
After canvassing federal outposts throughout the West, Ensley settled on South Dakota, where a task force was taking on new agents. Crucial to Ensley‘s application was a letter of recommendation from Aukland. ”Since 1986 we have become close friends, and I can comment quite favorably on his character, loyalty and abilities,“ Aukland wrote in 1993. He said Ensley was especially suited to handling sensitive interviews and complex cases. ”His demeanor is perfect. I would consider him an excellent partner in situations of arrest, interview and case preparation.“
Ensley moved with his wife to South Dakota and worked with the DEA task force for more than a year, specializing in infiltrating motorcycle gangs.
Posing as an outlaw biker came easily to Ensley. ”He kind of looked the part,“ said David Osterquist, a police officer who attended the state training program with Ensley. Ensley likes to recall one case in particular, where he befriended a biker he found broken down on the side of the road. After Ensley invited the man into his home and helped to repair his motorcycle, the biker offered to cut Ensley in on plans to distribute a fresh batch of methamphetamines. Ensley declined, and after waving goodbye to his transient friend, called the tip in to the task force. ”He never knew who turned him in,“ Ensley gloated later.
But the job couldn’t last -- a person can operate only so long as a stranger in the small towns on the fringe of the Great Plains -- and in 1994 he parlayed his federal accreditation into the job of chief of police in North Sioux City, a community of 2,000 in the southeast corner of the state.
There Ensley pursued his newly revived career with gusto. Not content to simply ply the main drag in a patrol car, he dispatched officers to set up speed traps on the local interstate and instituted a number of drug investigations, drawing concern from the local City Council, which felt such cases should be left to county or state authorities.
Ensley even found crime within his own office. He heard talk around the police station that a popular officer who had recently left the force had committed several sexual assaults under color of authority. Ensley investigated, found a witness who would testify, and made the arrest. The former officer was convicted and sent to state prison.
Ensley‘s approach to crime fighting became the source of continuing controversy at City Hall, where some council members questioned his aggressive style and others challenged excessive overtime pay for the four officers under Ensley’s command. When the council ordered him to restrict his efforts, Ensley just scoffed.
”There was no chaining him,“ said Dick Volkman, editor of the weekly North Sioux City Times. ”He fought with the City Council a lot, and he was fairly brazen in letting them know he wasn‘t going to accommodate their desires.“
Ensley had his admirers as well, among them John Slattery, the county prosecutor. In a 1995 letter of commendation, Slattery noted the Police Department’s ”troubled history“ and said Ensley had effected ”great strides in the quality of law enforcement.“
Ensley‘s tenure became the primary issue in the 1995 race for mayor of North Sioux City, with the incumbent backing the chief and a challenger vowing to oust him. The incumbent lost, and Ensley was fired three weeks later.
On his last day in office, in May 1995, Ensley received an award from a local rape-crisis center for ”service, courage, empathy and compassion.“ It was the sort of affirmation he’d been seeking since his ouster from Oregon, but it was all for nothing. ”He was upset,“ Officer Osterquist said. ”He liked what he did and he liked where he lived, but he was fired for doing the job he was hired to do.“
Disillusioned and unemployed, Ensley leased three tractor-trailer rigs and launched a trucking firm, driving loads of corn and meal to destinations around the Midwest. Once again, Ensley found himself excommunicated from the fraternity of badges, uniforms and standard-issue side arms. And once again, it was Luis Valenzuela who provided him a way back in.
In the delicate, dangerous dance between the Mexican trafficker and his American cop brother-in-law, Skip Ensley maintained the upper hand. Valenzuela knew that Ensley was a police officer, but apparently believed Skip was at least willing to live and let live. And when Luis learned that Skip was running a trucking operation, he decided to push their relationship from one of tacit tolerance to active collaboration.
Valenzuela made his move in grand fashion. First he prevailed on Ensley to meet him in Mexicali, then flew him on a private plane to Mexico City, where he treated Ensley to a week of the high life in the Mexican capital. Finally Luis made his pitch: Skip would become his partner, using his trucks to haul as much as a ton of cocaine at a time across the United States. They would start with a test run, a 1,500-kilo shipment of marijuana to Canada.
Ensley stalled for time and returned to South Dakota without making a commitment. There he contacted a new friend at the FBI -- John Dalzeil, a former colleague from the biker-gang task force. Ensley says Dalzeil was ”ecstatic“ at the potential quantities involved, and the prospect of rounding up traffickers in every city where Skip might make deliveries.
Ensley agreed and told Valenzuela that the partnership was on, but soon found that Dalzeil had jumped the gun. His bureau chief in Chicago was skeptical of a sting involving a shipment across two international borders, and killed the project. To Ensley, the decision reeked of bureaucratic politics. Such a far-flung scheme would mean the Chicago bureau would have to share credit for the bust with FBI and DEA posts on the border and elsewhere. ”John‘s supervisor didn’t want another agency getting in on their thing,“ Ensley said. ”Stats,“ he fumed, spitting the word like an epithet. ”That‘s what it’s all about.“
Hemming and hedging, Ensley backed out of the deal with Valenzuela. ”Luis was champing at the bit to do business. I had to come up with all kinds of excuses -- my truck broke down, my mommy died -- anything to turn it off.“ But Ensley still believed he could sell the FBI on his nascent partnership with Valenzuela. He decided he‘d have better luck working with the agents in Southern California, and in 1996 Skip and Karen Ensley returned home. Karen wanted to be closer to her family, and Skip re-connected with the Riverside office of the FBI.
But while Ensley was picking up where he’d left off, most of the agents who first went after Luis Valenzuela had moved on in their careers -- Aukland, in particular, was stationed in Seattle. Ensley started from scratch, working primarily with a young FBI agent named Peter Freitag. Once more, Ensley had to demonstrate who Valenzuela was, and how close he could get.
Freitag insisted that Ensley set up a simple drug buy. Ensley knew that Valenzuela rarely made deliveries himself, but he also knew the dealer had a fondness for selling heroin, which yielded larger profits and which he could obtain outside the Tijuana cartel. Valenzuela quickly took the bait, meeting Ensley on March 22, 1997, in the parking lot of a restaurant in Montclair. As was customary, the deal was bifurcated; a week later, under the watchful eyes of an FBI surveillance team, Ensley delivered $24,000 in cash. It was a Sunday, and Casiano Valenzuela was the designated bagman. Skip made the payoff in the parking lot of their family church. Ensley recalls the meeting with a rare note of regret. ”Casiano was my best friend,“ he said.
Spurred by the successful undercover buy, Agent Freitag pressed Ensley for more details of the Valenzuela smuggling operation. Ensley says he told Freitag to ask the agents on the Southwest Border Task Force, some of whom had been on hand for the 1991 bust, but Freitag declined -- because, Ensley says, he feared losing control of the case.
Exasperated at the bureaucratic skirmishing, Ensley says he called Washington, D.C., and spoke to Thomas J. Kneir, then deputy assistant director for drug investigations at the FBI and now head of the bureau‘s Chicago office. Ensley laid out the whole story -- the start-and-stop investigations, the hoarding of information, the failure even to slow down the Valenzuela organization. Contacted recently in Chicago, Kneir said he did not recall the exchange, but said he was often asked to intervene in squabbles over turf. According to Ensley, the deputy director ordered Freitag and the task force to coordinate the case against Valenzuela.
Whatever the impetus, the record shows that in May, two months after Ensley made his heroin buy, Freitag contacted DEA Agent George Eliot, supervising agent at the L.A.-based Southwest Border Task Force. The conversation that ensued represented a major advance for the task force, the first real break in the investigation.
Operation Rio Blanco had been launched eight months before, in September 1996, when a DEA agent in Tucson contacted a man known only as Mario who boasted of shipping tons of cocaine across the border. Mario was looking for a driver. The agent offered his services.
A deal was struck: The agent would drive a truck laden with 300 kilos of cocaine from Nogales to Los Angeles, where he would collect a fee of $1,000 per kilo. It was a blind delivery: Mario provided the agent a single pager number. A day later, arriving in Los Angeles, the agent dialed. Someone named Julian called back and gave him another number. When the meeting finally took place, agents trailed the pickup man to El Monte, where they stopped the loaded car, recovered the dope and made a single arrest. Aside from that, all the agents obtained were numbers to a pager and a cell phone.
The hot numbers represented a thin lead. Depending on the extent of court authorization, agents could track the numbers dialed by some phones and could listen in on others. But the conversations they monitored were quick, sketchy and in code. Cocaine, for example, was referred to variously as ”wedding dresses,“ ”family,“ ”the girls,“ ”the boys,“ ”books from the library,“ ”cars,“ ”parts,“ ”platanos,“ ”chili,“ ”a hand“ (for 5 kilos) or simply as ”things.“ Meetings were arranged on the fly, as drivers conferred by cell phone while plying the freeways, making surveillance chancy at best. Piecing together who was who and what was happening was a daunting task, often virtually impossible.
And the numbers kept changing. Within a week of the 300-kilo bust, all the phones involved had been disconnected. The number for one cell phone was changed four times in the space of three months. Tracking the new phone registrations was made more difficult because the phone retailers where they did business were often in league with the smugglers. In particular, according to court affidavits, A-Tel Cellular, in Downey, and A-1 Beeper, in Hollywood, ”notify the trafficker of any inquiry by law enforcement.“ As the investigation progressed, the agents tapped the lines of the phone retailers themselves.
It was not until he spoke with Agent Freitag that George Eliot learned just whose phone he was listening in on -- that of Luis Valenzuela, a trafficker wanted by the government since 1991. The phone numbers provided by Ensley showed it was Valenzuela who had coordinated the 300-kilo delivery in Los Angeles. Valenzuela’s number also turned up as a key supplier to another midlevel dealer the task force had been monitoring for months. In the drug scene in Southern California, Ensley said, ”You couldn‘t swing a dead cat without hitting someone connected to Luis.“
Not only was Valenzuela central, but he was stable. ”While the majority of the other telephones were eventually discarded, Valenzuela’s telephone remained active,“ agents said in court papers. ”This target telephone became an anchor in the investigation.“
Freitag also told Eliot about Ensley -- that he‘d conducted a heroin buy with Valenzuela, and that Ensley was continuing to negotiate possible shipments of ”multikilogram quantities of heroin and cocaine to an out-of-town buyer.“ On the strength of what he learned from Freitag, Eliot made Valenzuela the primary subject of his investigation, and obtained court permission to monitor his phones and trace incoming and outgoing calls.
From that point forward, the investigation proceeded on two parallel tracks. Eliot and L.A. Sheriff’s Deputy Gene Johns fielded a team of agents who specialized in wiretaps and surveillance, while Ensley worked undercover, setting up deals and capturing incriminating conversations on tape. And like the smugglers they stalked, the federal agents kept the two operations compartmentalized: Ensley was rarely informed how the task force was progressing.
At occasional family functions in the Inland Empire, at lunches in their old stomping grounds of Upland and Montclair, and in phone calls monitored by the FBI, Ensley rekindled with Valenzuela the idea of a pipeline to the Midwest. Ensley brought it up, he said, because he‘d heard from an old friend, somebody he’d met in high school. A native of Mexico, as it happened, whose father had made his fortune in pharmaceuticals. This friend, Ensley told Luis, was the black sheep of his family.
The story, of course, was fiction. In truth, Ensley was laying the groundwork to introduce Valenzuela to Victor Guerrero, a veteran undercover agent running the FBI end of the task force.
Negotiations over substantial shipments began in June and continued through the summer. A face-to-face meeting was set for August 28. Guerrero had a friend with a yacht anchored in Long Beach, a 60-foot Bertram cabin cruiser. It was neutral ground. They could meet there.
Task-force agents prepared the ship by installing hidden microphones and video cameras. Each of the parties arrived separately: Valenzuela with a bodyguard; Guerrero with a Mexican ”associate“ from Sinaloa, also undercover; and Ensley. Everyone carried a gun.
It was a lovely day, with sunlight glinting off the sea, and as host, Guerrero kept his assistant busy serving fresh lobster and giant shrimp, salsa and cold beer. Luis was wary, according to Ensley, but ”Victor was good. He looked the part, he knew the language, and he knew the moves. First they were feeling each other out, but then they got chummy. They were laughing, high-fiving, talking about how much product they were going to move.“
The crowning moment for Ensley came later that afternoon when Luis called for attention and made an announcement: Up to that point he‘d been sizing Skip up, Luis said, wondering what to make of this Anglo brother-in-law, but now he was satisfied. He reached over and grabbed Ensley ”in a big Sinaloa hug.“
It may have been an awkward embrace -- the bum-legged Mexican could barely get his arms around the barrel-chested cop -- but it certainly was heartfelt. After all, each had something to celebrate: Luis was excited at the prospect of opening up new territories, while Skip was animated by the confidence that, at long last, his quest to capture Valenzuela was bearing fruit. ”Nobody’d ever been able to get that close to the cartel before,“ Ensley said later. ”We‘d already made the heroin deal; now we’d finally be able to do some large shipments, and we‘d be able to put a substantial dent in the cartel.“
Over the next two months, with Ensley serving as intermediary, Valenzuela held three more meetings with Guerrero, the last on October 27, in Chicago. During that period, Ensley was collecting regular payments from the task force, for his expenses and also for his services as an informant. He began to voice concerns that no deal had yet been consummated, but Guerrero reassured him. ”’Don‘t worry,’ he told me,“ Ensley said. ”‘We know what we’re doing.‘“
What Ensley didn’t realize was that the task force was making progress on its own. Working with the Valenzuela phone numbers and addresses Ensley had supplied, the surveillance crews were piecing together a sketchy picture of the larger operation.
Within weeks of the first wiretap, agents had identified Valenzuela‘s right-hand man as ”Bunes,“ later identified as Osmand Israel Perez. Bunes had replaced Raul Valenzuela in the cartel hierarchy after he married the slain trafficker’s widow. As with Ensley, Luis was keeping the business inside the family.
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.“
Not all the dealings within the cartel were so fraternal. In March, a robbery occurred at one of the houses where Castro collected drug proceeds. All that was missing were a gold chain, a Rolex watch and $10,000 -- far less than a single day‘s collections. But Castro heard from one of his cohorts that the likely suspects were Veronica and Gabriella, two of the women he employed to procure new stash houses.
Castro placed a call to Robocop. With agents from the task force listening in, Castro asked Robocop if he had a relationship with Gabriella. Robocop said no. Castro then told Robocop he believed it was Gabriella who committed the robbery, and Robocop agreed it ”must have been.“ Castro said both of them were going to ”get fucked.“ Any ambiguity in that statement was cleared up when ”Robocop asked Castro if they were going to have to kill both of them. Castro answered that ’If they both showed up, they would both be fucked.‘“
Castro then went into some detail, telling Robocop to question Gabriella to find out who else was involved before he killed her. Castro ”instructed Robocop to take her out to the desert [Palmdale] under the pretense of going to see a friend, and make sure the body was never discovered.“ He would not be satisfied, Castro said, until he knew who was involved in the robbery. According to the monitoring agent, Castro then told Robocop that if he’d never killed anyone before, he should go ahead and ”do it“ to see how it felt. Robocop said okay.
There‘s no record of whether Robocop carried out the plan, but the woman was never seen again. Skip Ensley only learned of the ominous phone call later, while reading through court papers on the case. He views the whole affair with disgust. The task force could have intervened, Ensley said -- after all, they already had identified Robocop, and they had all the evidence they needed to make an arrest. But that would compromise the wiretaps, and end the escalating string of seizures. ”They actually let those women get killed so they could protect their stats,“ Ensley said bitterly.
They were also, of course, seeking to land a crippling blow to the trafficking network. And though the smugglers seemed increasingly ubiquitous as the investigation went on, the task-force agents finally settled on an end game. They would move against Jorge Castro the next time he came to California.
Castro maintained homes on both sides of the border, and had stayed in Mexico since the task-force strikes of early January. He slipped back into the country in June, and wiretap monitors promptly picked up his trail. On June 26, 1998, Pomona officers assigned to the task force arrested Castro together with Layo, his primary money handler. Also picked up that week were Robocop, Castro’s enforcer, and Juan Carlos Perez Lopez, who delivered cocaine to customers for Valenzuela.
They were significant figures in the drug trade, but far short of the ”entire organization“ the task force had vowed to dismantle. In fact, the June arrests represented less than half the number of traffickers named in the indictment against Castro and his organization. No Luis Valenzuela. No Bunes. None of the seven other cell leaders to whom Castro supplied drugs. Asked how such viable targets had escaped the dragnet, Gene Johns said, ”Let‘s put it this way. There were a lot of fugitives because the takedown date was real close to World Cup soccer.“ The games that year were being held in France. Mexico advanced as far as the quarterfinals, and the task-force agents say Valenzuela and others had flown to Europe to attend a match.
Even as Operation Rio Blanco wound down, Ensley had one more shot at Luis Valenzuela. The incident is not recorded in court papers -- the paper trail runs cold on the occasion of the Castro arrest. But to Ensley it epitomizes his experience with the task force and his bitter disappointment in his personal quest to put his brother-in-law in jail.
According to Ensley, he received a call from Valenzuela himself the same day as the Castro arrest, warning him that police were moving and he should be careful. Two days later, Ensley spoke with Casiano, who asked Ensley to check if a warrant was out for Luis. They agreed to meet in Upland the next day. Ensley then called the FBI, and wore a wire to the sit-down with Casiano.
There, according to Ensley, Casiano explained that operations had been put on hold due to the Castro arrest, but that shipments would resume shortly. Luis needed to be on hand -- he would test the border in the following week, and would meet with Ensley once he was back in California.
Ensley saw the news as a reprieve -- Luis still trusted him despite the Castro arrest. George Eliot and the DEA planned to station officers at the border to monitor Valenzuela’s entry, but Ensley said he extracted a promise that the agents would stay back until the planned meeting with Luis. ”I wanted to put the cuffs on him myself,“ Ensley said.
It never happened. Valenzuela decided to take precautions before stepping back onto U.S. soil. He settled on a simple ruse: His brother Casiano would serve as a decoy. ”Casiano and Luis look identical,“ Ensley said. ”You can‘t tell them apart unless you know them.“
On the appointed day, with Luis watching from a discreet distance, Casiano drove across the border in Luis’ car, with Luis‘ son at his side. As Casiano crossed the border plaza, federal agents stopped him at gunpoint. He was handcuffed, interrogated for two hours and finally released. Luis moved deeper back into Mexico.
According to Ensley, when he learned by phone that the task-force agents had blown the arrest, he called Eliot directly. It was, it seems, a matter of ego. ”He said, ’well, we worked real hard on this case, and we wanted to be the ones to bring him in,‘“ Ensley said. ”He told me they wanted to send a clear message to Valenzuela and his organization.“
Eliot disputed Ensley’s version. He said he did not know of the attempted move against Valenzuela at the border, and declined to answer questions about Ensley because of his lawsuit. The DEA agent did acknowledge that Ensley played an important role in Rio Blanco, however. ”I can tell you this much about Skip Ensley,“ Eliot said. ”He was certainly not a charlatan.“
Today, Skip Ensley is living in limbo. He gets by working small construction jobs and administering polygraph exams, but his family life is all but shot. His dad died in 1995, and Karen has enrolled in school and spends much of her time away from home. When she attends a family event, Casiano and Kathleen are often on hand, and Skip stays away. Karen keeps his whereabouts secret.
Ensley blames his misfortunes -- and Valenzuela‘s triumph -- on the careerist imperatives that dominate the life of the federal agencies waging the war on drugs. The Southwest Border Task Force concentrated on padding numbers that would impress supervisors in Washington, he said, instead of making the sort of arrests that could hamper the flow of drugs across the border. ”These law-enforcement agencies are actually unethical,“ Ensley said. ”They conduct their investigations to benefit themselves instead of taking care of the crime at hand.“
Ensley’s jaundiced view of the task-force system is supported, in part, by Eric Blumenson, a professor at the Suffolk University Law School in Boston and an expert in asset forfeiture. He points out that cash seized in drug busts has become a driving force in federal and local agency budgets, with seizures totaling more than $1 billion last year. Consequently, Blumenson said, ”Virtually all drug-enforcement decisions are subject to this economic temptation.“ Another researcher, a graduate student who spent a year working as an officer on a federal task force, concluded, ”The drug enforcers and the drug traffickers become symbiotic beneficiaries of the war on drugs.“ Ensley put it in more graphic terms: ”If they quit the shadowboxing and went right into Mexico, they could do some serious damage to the cartels. But then they‘d all be out of jobs.“
In the case of Rio Blanco, the $15 million in seized currency was distributed among 17 agencies, some as far-flung as Tucson and San Diego. The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department received the largest share -- $5.7 million, according to the DEA. Sheriff‘s Lieutenant James Whitten said the funds can be spent on ”any legitimate law-enforcement expenses,“ but he considered cash seizures a ”side benefit“ in drug investigations. ”The primary goal is to catch criminals,“ Whitten said.
Agents with the federal task force dismiss Ensley’s critical assessment of Rio Blanco. After all, Jorge Castro was convicted in federal court on charges of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and to launder money, and sentenced in March 2000 to 17 years in federal prison. The three accomplices arrested with him also pleaded guilty and are now serving prison sentences, but to the task-force agents, Castro was the key. ”Obviously, we always look to get the highest target,“ Eliot said.
That‘s not good enough for Ensley. If Valenzuela and his crew were out of town, he asked, ”Why not wait until they were back in the area?“ The task force had maintained its surveillance net for more than a year -- it could have waited another week to nab Valenzuela. Eliot answers that, with Castro on the move, ”We had a small window in which to operate.“ Ensley remains adamant. ”They took a figurehead, strictly for eye appeal. Castro may have had the biggest reputation, but why not take ’em all?“
Ensley accuses his federal handlers of avarice and incompetence, but other, less malicious motives could have been at play. It could be that, in his obsessive hunt for validation, Ensley so alienated the feds on the task force that they allowed Valenzuela to slip away through deliberate indifference. ”The FBI felt Skip was a wild card,“ said Ensley‘s friend who followed the case. And Ensley could be abrasive, always ready to remind Eliot and others that he was the only one in direct contact with a ranking member of the cartel. The small-town cop with all the answers had to grate on the nerves of his federal handlers. At some point, the agents faced what must have seemed an easy choice -- use Luis Valenzuela as a conduit to other traffickers, or arrest him and share the credit and the loot with Skip Ensley.
Of course, whatever happened doesn’t speak well for the government‘s effort to stamp out the drug trade. In the case of Rio Blanco, more than 30 traffickers were named in various applications for wiretaps, and agents overheard scores more discussing transactions, prices, shipments and debts. Absent Skip’s driving personal agenda, selecting whom to arrest when became, inevitably, an almost random decision. In the meantime, as one federal agent said in court papers, ”The seizures represent only a small percentage of the cocaine and money being transported.“
Whatever the priorities the task force was juggling, Ensley can‘t get past one simple fact: He delivered to the federal task force an open-and-shut case that led to the indictment against Luis Valenzuela, and the government never laid a hand on him. Ensley even induced Valenzuela to personally conduct a drug transaction himself -- a rare breach of procedure for a top-level trafficker. ”I spent 10 years grooming this guy,“ Ensley fumed. ”They didn’t know Luis even existed.“