Report Details Sinaloa Cartel Smuggling Methods

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A new series of reports in the Los Angeles Times offers a picture of the sophisticated transport and smuggling network used by the Sinaloa Cartel to sneak drugs into the U.S.

In the first of a four-part series, the newspaper chronicles the day-to-day responsibilities of a Sinaloa Cartel operative, alongside efforts by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to build a case against him. Carlos Cuevas, alias “Charlie,” oversaw a network of about 40 drivers, lookouts and coordinators, including an Iraqi war veteran, charged with transporting drugs from the Mexican border town of Mexicali to Los Angeles.

What emerges is an insight into the sophisticated smuggling methods employed by the Sinaloa Cartel. This included building multiple compartments in vehicles where drugs could be hidden. The receptacles could only be opened with tricky procedures — like connecting one cable to another — that would be difficult for border patrol agents to identify. Cuevas employed two look-outs, one on each side of the border, who would keep tabs on the vehicle carrying drugs from the stash house in Mexicali until it passed inspection.

After the vehicle had successfully crossed into the United States, a third lookout would trail the driver 200 miles north to Los Angeles where the drugs would be unloaded for distribution.

Cuevas was careful about who he employed to transport the drugs, choosing tattoo-free drivers with clean criminal records.

In “Operation Imperial Emperor” the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) used information gleaned from surveillance of Cuevas to arrest over 100 suspects, seize millions of dollars in cash and cocaine, and indict Victor Emilio Cazares, a top lieutenant in the Sinaloa Cartel.

According to the LA Times, the operation showed that “the cartel’s U.S. distribution system was bigger and more resilient than anyone had imagined, a spider web connecting dozens of cities, constantly regenerating and expanding.”

See the LA Times’ interactive “Cocaine road map,” showing how drugs are moved over the border, here.

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