Mexican drug cartels operate an illicit export business that depends on freeways that run from California and Arizona to Canada.
If you drive these freeways, chances are you have passed a car or truck secretly holding a cargo of heroin, meth or cocaine. Drug trafficking touches every city, every small town in every state in the west. And one smuggling ring operated from Arizona to Washington state.
"Say hello to my little friend"
On January 21st of 2012 at 8:37 p.m, federal agents intercepted a phone call. It was between a man named Victor Berrelleza-Verduzco and one of his associates, Jose.
On this wiretapped call – according to a transcript – Victor and Jose discuss a gun with a grenade launcher attached. At one point in the call, Victor says “like the one from the movie Scarface.”
“If people have seen the movie you remember the scene at the end where Al Pacino says ‘say hello to my little friend’ and then shoots up this whole room of people with an M-16 on full auto,” says Assistant US Attorney Vince Lombardi. “You know that’s how they see themselves. They want to live that life.”
Victor’s attorney says that characterization of her client as a drug kingpin is off base. But here’s what we do know. Victor – also known as Vanilla - was one of three brothers from Mexico implicated in a drug trafficking ring. They were based in western Washington and smuggled heroin and methamphetamine from Mexico.
"These are some real significant bad guys"
Lombardi says the case started when a would-be informant walked into an Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) office and said, “I’ve been getting guns for this group, I think they’re tied to a Mexican drug cartel, I’m in head over my head.”
Lombardi says the tipster’s story checked out. So the feds wired him up and sent him back into the criminal organization. Soon, there was a plan for him to drive a shipment of guns from western Washington to Arizona.
“It’s an arsenal," says Lombardi. "It’s a bunch of assault rifles, AK-47s, AR-15 style assault rifles, a couple of handguns and they want him to run them back to Mexico. And that’s when you know these are some real significant bad guys.”
The feds intercepted the shipment, but their case had just begun. They obtained a judge’s approval for wiretaps and started listening in on the phone conversations of the key players. Turns out gun smuggling was sort of a side business for them. Their main operation was shipping drugs from Mexico through Arizona to western Washington.
“So it was both guns going south and large amounts of heroin and methamphetamine coming north to this district," explains Lombardi. "And then it would distributed out to different parts of the United States from here.”
Codes, cash and cartels
The drugs were moved to Washington by car from Arizona in hidden compartments behind the bumpers or dashboard. Lombardi says the couriers were ideally non-Hispanic couples, because he says, "I think they think that’s less likely to attract law enforcement attention.”
On the calls, Lombardi says the players talked in code. Meth was “ventanas,” the Spanish word for windows. Heroin was “tires.” He says the packages of drugs were sometimes called chorizos or churros because of their long, round shape. Once the drugs were delivered to western Washington, the cash proceeds would return south in the same hidden compartments.
“Just like any other business the profits go back up to the corporation or the organization in this case,” says Anne Harkonen, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations who worked the case.
She says the cellophane wrapped stacks of mostly $20 bills were marked with the initials of the people back in Mexico who needed to get paid.
“On one occasion," Harkonen says, "we were able to get $170,000 out of a car that was proceeds, over $200,000 in a storage locker.”
If the flow of drugs north feeds America’s addiction, the flow of money south funds Mexican drug cartels and their notorious violence. Think headless bodies dumped by the side of the road. The National Drug Threat Assessment says Mexican-based traffickers dominate the drug trade in the U.S..
Federal prosecutor Lombardi says in his experience that connection doesn’t often reveal itself. But this case was different. He points to one phone conversation in particular between the oldest Berrelleza-Verduzco brother Cristian – he ran operations here - and his father – known as Don Victor - back in Mexico.
“And Don Victor says – and I’m paraphrasing here - ‘I just met with the big boss, Arturo’s brother Hector,'" says Lombardi. "Well, Arturo Beltran-Leyva, Hector Beltran-Leyva.”
As in the Beltran-Leyva cartel – known as one of the oldest and bloodiest Mexican crime families. The months of wiretaps culminated in a series of raids in March of 2012 here in western Washington as well as in Arizona and Utah. The feds seized several kilos of drugs, over $500,000 in cash and numerous guns.
"This is a small cell"
They ultimately indicted 34 people – including Cristian and Victor Berrelleza-Verduzco, their brother Ivan and their father Don Victor, who is now a fugitive. All three brothers have entered into plea deals, two have been sentenced. Each has retained a private attorney.
George Trejo represents the third brother, Ivan. He says, “I receive payment to represent him. I don’t know where that payment actually came from.”
Trejo says his client was not a key player in the family drug business. His crime: accompanying one of his brother’s on a drug run to Utah.
In bringing down the Berrelleza-Verduczo brothers and their associates, the feds say they dismantled a wide ranging international drug conspiracy. Attorney Trejo calls that “puffery” and “bravado”
“They merely dismantled this small cell here in the United States," Trejo says. "This is a small cell.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Vince Lombardi, not surprisingly, takes issue with that characterization.
“I think it was significant," he says. "We dismantled this particular organization, or this sub-organization. Now do they have other ones? Sure. Are there other people that will take their place? Sure. But it’s significant, I think for the larger organization.”
And certainly, adds Lombardi, for the individuals charged in the case - some of whom will now serve lengthy sentences in a federal prison.