The three-year, multi-agency federal investigation dubbed “Narconetas” culminated in a dramatic crescendo this week when authorities arrested 25 defendants in a barrage of Southland raids targeting criminal networks accused of running drugs and cash across the border for Mexico’s notorious Sinaloa cartel.
After an initial 20 arrests were reported Wednesday, authorities detained five more defendants, with two already in custody awaiting transfer to federal custody, bringing the total number of detainees to 27. A remaining 30 defendants, also named in the series of indictments unsealed Wednesday, are fugitives and believed to be in Mexico.
In its second major takedown since forming in 2014, the Los Angeles Strike Force — an FBI-led coalition of federal and local agencies whose raison d’être is foiling Mexican drug cartels that use the Southland as a wholesale narcotics distribution hub — raided stash houses in L.A., Riverside, Orange, San Bernardino and San Diego counties. They collected 850 pounds of methamphetamine, nearly a ton of cocaine, 93 pounds of heroin, 50 pounds of marijuana — and, for crime syndicates known to deal in the tens and hundreds of millions, a paltry $1.42 million in cash.
Authorities estimate the entire stash is worth around $35 million wholesale, with a retail street value of $65 million in the L.A. market, more in other cities. At least by such metrics, that dwarfs the force’s first major bust, a two-year wiretap investigation culminating last year in the indictment of 22 defendants, as well as the seizure of 33 firearms and drugs with a total street value of about $6 million.
But more than the haul, law enforcement touted the level of infiltration and “innovative investigative techniques” used to snare low-level operatives and identify top-level cartel members on the other side of the border.
In email conversations with L.A. Weekly, Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles, described a need to constantly respond to innovative tactics used by criminal organizations by employing improved surveillance methods, increased cooperation among agencies and “the ability to better use intelligence obtained from a number of sources.”
While numerous communications were intercepted in the course of the investigation, including via conventional Title III wiretaps, Mrozek said some of the more interesting intercepts involved secure communication devices — “or at least what the traffickers thought were secure.”
David Shirk, director of UC San Diego’s master's program in international relations and an expert in Mexico-U.S. cross-border politics, law enforcement and security, lauded the operation for marshalling the time, resources and coordination required to take on transnational organized crime — but pointed to the perpetual challenge of keeping up with an auto-regenerative foe.
“What it means for winning the War on Drugs is not clear. It’s an ongoing cyclical process of taking out key players and having them replaced with new key players, in a self-perpetuating industry that does not just go away because you make a big fuss like this,” Shirk said.
Still, he added, targeting operatives at different levels across often cellular and disparate networks has its merits.
“That’s really the important thing — and something you don’t see in Mexico. Most of my time goes into thinking about what’s not working south of the border in fighting criminal organizations … and one valuable outcome is trying to get people at all levels of the organization,” Shirk said.
“What we see in Mexico over the last decade is just going after El Chapo, the top guy — then they just find a new top guy. Here it’s likely to be more significantly impactful when you’re trying to take out the whole chain.” (Sinaloa head Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán is now in U.S. custody and awaiting trial after a series of legendary escapes.)
According to federal prosecutors, more than half of the defendants named in Narconetas are Mexican nationals.
“Several of the top defendants who led the organizations appear to have direct connections to the Sinaloa cartel, but most of the people charged in these case were members of separate drug-trafficking organizations that were in the business of moving narcotics on behalf of Sinaloa,” Mrozek said.
The three separate indictments target three distinct organizations but prosecutors acknowledged “some links,” including one defendant charged in all three cases, who is listed along with his three brothers (and other apparent relatives) in one case. A second defendant is named in two of the three indictments, indicating additional levels of interconnectivity — which prosecutors call uncommon but not unheard of.
Each case alleges at least one conspiracy — e.g., to distribute controlled substances, to launder monetary instruments — but they are not being prosecuted under RICO.
The indictments list an inventory of nicknames, including several online monikers, for most defendants, pointing to modes of communications intercepted by law enforcement, although authorities declined to comment on specific platforms.
One indictment charges defendants with “bulk cash smuggling,” naming two specific shipments of drug money intercepted at the border in 2016 ($286,550 in a Honda Crosstour and $403,320 in a Kia Sorrento, in hidden compartments, heading south).
“We believe there were other shipments — and possibly other methods used — but only two specific incidents are discussed in the indictment,” Mrozek said.
The focus on retail operations on this side of the border is something seen repeatedly over the last decade, says Shirk, citing other major busts and a nationwide crackdown in recent years. “So the effect is that it has temporarily interrupted the drug traffic operations to some extent and perhaps also generated additional new intel on other actors still at large,” he said.
As some experts warn cartel-run weaponized drones are now “on our doorstep,” law enforcement is wading ever deeper into new technological and tactical territory.
“We know for sure law enforcement is using social media and audiovisual technology – technology is part of the story,” Shirk said, citing omnipresent video tracking and license plate readers as examples of innovative policing technologies.
“There are probably license plate readers all over the place in L.A. Just being able to know the specific frequent locations individuals go to, what’s their footprint, who are they visiting — that’s pretty high-tech stuff. You couldn’t imagine that 20 years ago.”
Formed to fight organized crime in the 1960s, strike forces were largely disbanded at the turn of the century; they’ve been cropping up in some cities, proving controversial in others.
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The L.A. Strike Force is “certainly not the only task force out there,” said Shirk, noting we often don’t learn about them until after they’ve made their move. “It’s hard to know exactly what efforts are being made. This is the culmination of three to four years of work: Agents, undercover, informants … Then they move when there’s an opportune time to do so, or when there’s a chance someone’s cover is blown or someone is leaving the country.”
In a statement Wednesday, Paul Delacourt, assistant director in charge of the FBI in Los Angeles, said the investigation was responsible for removing more than 1,300 kilos of narcotics from the streets and preventing related violence.
“We expect this case will have a significant impact on the transportation abilities of these organizations,” Delacourt said.
Shirk acknowledged it will likely have a significant impact on supply and movement — “because you’re taking key providers out of the game.”
But, he added, “That’s an opportunity for the next illicit entrepreneur.”