Last week, a big marijuana bust in Chula Vista led to the arrest of ten suspects and the seizure of two tons of marijuana, estimated street value, $45 million. It made all the TV newscasts. But nobody seemed to notice another bust that went down last month -- and may have netted one of the most important San Diego allies of the Arellano Félix brothers.
On May 4, 150 agents involved in "Operation Crosswire" swooped down on houses and businesses from Chula Vista and National City to Lakeside, El Cajon, Hemet, and San Bernardino, as well as the international border itself. Seizures made during "Crosswire" included 2490 pounds of marijuana, a Ford Expedition, a Nissan 300 ZX, a swank home in Bonita, a $25,000 30-foot Bayliner power boat, a $117,000 yacht named No Se Nada ("I Don't Know Anything"), a $500,000 Bell "Huey" helicopter, and ten suspected drug traffickers.
Six more are included in the government indictment. All are charged with being "members of a drug conspiracy operating in San Diego and elsewhere." The amount of drugs seized in the 16 counts indicate this was no street-level operation. Count 2 accuses one suspect of attempting to distribute approximately 220 pounds of cocaine. Count 15 claims that "on or about September 2, 1998," group members "did knowingly...import...approximately 1198 pounds of marijuana."
But the biggest prize of all was one man, Sergio Sandoval Ruvalcaba. Sandoval, a.k.a. "Junior," resident of 1472 Rimcrest Court, Bonita, is accused of being the leader of his own cocaine and marijuana importing and distribution organization and a close associate of the Arellano Félix brothers.
Sandoval's arrest was certainly big news in Tijuana. According to newspapers in Tijuana, including La Crónica and the Mexico City-based national El Universal, he is a one-time municipal policeman who was chief of security for Juan Francisco Franco Rios, the PAN's (National Action Party's) first attorney general in Baja. Sandoval was also considered the "strong arm" in the administration of Baja governor Ernesto Ruffo Appel. Even then, says El Universal, he was the focus of "constant accusations...of being the 'liaison' between Baja authorities and the Arellano Félix brothers."
Many in Tijuana could not believe the news of the arrest. "When I heard that they had arrested [Sandoval]," says Victor Clark Alfaro, Tijuana's most prominent human rights activist, "I called [El Universal]. I asked several times. 'Are you sure these people are not going to be released?' [They] told me 'No. They are not going to be released for many years.' "
Clark had reason to feel apprehensive. He has had to live with a bodyguard ever since he received death threats five years ago. It happened after his office issued a 1993 report recounting 84 cases of torture by state police. But it was after Clark also accused Sandoval of selling state police ID papers to members of organized crime for "between $8000 and $10,000" that the threats came. And they were serious. One of his informants from within the state police was subsequently tortured and killed. The son of another was shot dead.
"This is why I felt such relief at the news," he says by phone from Tijuana.
Larry A. Mefford and "Michael" sit in easy chairs at FBI headquarters on Aero Drive. They look like winning coaches moments after the Super Bowl. Mefford is pleased and elated, Michael exhausted and careful with his words.
On the table in front of them sits a booklet laying out a brief history of the case and the charges. The cover features a red Mexico growing a marijuana plant linked by phone "crosswire" to a pile of hundred-dollar bills stacked on a green United States.
Mefford is assistant special agent in charge of the FBI in San Diego. Michael, who asked to remain anonymous, is the supervisor-special agent in charge of this investigation. He is the man who ran the two-year sting operation against Sandoval's organization, which culminated in the arrests and seizures during the first week of May.
"This case is significant because we think that it represents a key lieutenant and a key aspect of the Arellano Félix organization in San Diego and in Southern California," says Mefford. "Sergio Sandoval had been operating in the United States with impunity for many years. [He and the other] individuals that were arrested served a key role as far as distributing illegal narcotics -- mainly marijuana and cocaine -- through San Diego to other parts of the country. Primarily Los Angeles, but also other areas."
Michael says they treated the operation like a Hollywood movie. "We had to cast characters," he says. "The 'star' was the agent who was posing as a member of another organization, and we selected lots of supporting characters [who would play his cartel associates and] give credibility to his claims. We had one primary and twelve supporting agents. We had to learn not to do what cops do, not to act like cops act. We did nothing illegal, but we hung around a long time. We convinced them that we were part of the 'family.'"
They may have gotten lucky. According to U.S. Attorney Tom Padden (arguing in court May 21 against bail for the lone American arrestee, 59-year-old helicopter pilot Ronnie Theodore Walters), it was Humberto Barre Silva, another organization member and codefendant in this case, who "introduced and vouched for our undercover agent." Barre Silva and Sandoval both bought the FBI agent's cover story, that he was "a part of a South American cocaine-trafficking organization that operated out of Miami, Florida, and in Southern Florida."
Essential to his agents' success, says Michael, was to learn Sandoval's -- and the rest of the group's -- weakness. "Everybody has an Achilles' Heel. Greed was Sandoval's. We learned to appeal to his selfishness and greed. Displays of wealth were important."
"It's very difficult mechanically to do [two-year] operations like this," says Mefford. "Every 12 months we have a new budget. It's even more difficult on a personal basis. When the investigators, the agents, and the police officers were involved in this case, in particular the undercover agent, the ever-present issue was the danger -- and this is real danger. This is not the Hollywood TV danger. This is real live danger.
"For instance, during this investigation, they would occasionally talk about killing somebody. We had to deal with that. We couldn't let that happen. So Michael and the investigators had to think of strategies to ensure that nobody was endangered. Because we had to intercede if that was going to go forward. Even if it were a bad guy. We can't allow anything like that to happen."
"We faced that several times," says Michael. "We had to come up with options, and one of the options was taking action, which would mean ending the investigation. It never came to that. But lots of times our undercover agents were told that such and such a person was going to be killed. So we investigated to find out whether there was any possibility of that happening, and if so, what action we were prepared to take to prevent it from happening.
"There were many instances where undercover agents had a stigma [in their relationship with the Sandoval group] because of the fact that they were dealing with people who've known each other for years and years. The main [undercover agent] was accused at one time of being maybe with the government. We had to overcome that. We'd brainstorm. We overcame it with the overall dynamics of the case."
According to U.S. Attorney Padden, Sandoval was the most dangerous of bosses.
"Humberto Barre Silva spoke specifically about some of the methods of violence that were used. He talked about the exceptionally cruel ways that they used to dispose of bodies and to kill people. He discussed an industrial-sized meat grinder-type machine that they had in Tijuana. They threw people into it and referred to the [resulting] substance as 'pozole,' pozole being a Mexican soup dish that has a broth and meat chunks in it. When they killed somebody they would take the person's wallet and throw it on the lawn or on the porch of the victim's family to send a message."
Michael confirms his colleague's horrific tale. "If someone screwed up, but had been a loyal soldier, they would do him a favor by killing him first, before throwing him in. But for the worst, people who had betrayed them, they would feed them in alive. They would start feet first. They would taunt them.... These were not nice people."
"Sergio Sandoval has admitted to undercover agents that he was a killer for the organization," Padden told the court May 21. "He [boasted] that when he killed somebody, or when he took on a contract, that person would never be found again."
In this atmosphere, says Michael, the tension among his actors was huge. "The stress on the agents, and particularly the [principal] undercover agent, was unbelievable. So we met with him on a weekly basis, just to keep his sanity. Also, there was stress on the other agents, because even though they may not have been exposed to the day-to-day danger, they lived it because their commitment level was such. It was unbelievable."
Michael knew he was getting somewhere when his "star" agent reported back, according to Padden in court records, conversations with Sergio Sandoval himself.
"In December, when [Sandoval] had [a] lengthy meeting with the undercover agents and the cooperating sources, he talked about introducing [them] to leaders within the Arellano-Félix organization, including one of the Arellano-Félix brothers or Ismael Higuera Guerrero [a senior lieutenant in the Arellano Félix organization]."
Padden says Sandoval also loved the fact that in the U.S. there were no requirements to file flight plans for helicopters, and helicopters could land anywhere, as long as the landowner gave permission. "[He] thought the FBI or aviation authorities couldn't touch them," Padden said in court.
Walter's helicopter, Sandoval told the agent, moved drugs and money, at one point flying $2 million in $20 bills in the helicopter. Drugs -- the '65 Huey could carry four tons of dope -- were often delivered to Hemet Valley Thoroughbred Farm, where Sandoval's brother, codefendant Ernesto Sandoval, was the foreman. They thought this plan was foolproof, says Padden; nobody could stop them from landing.
Yet it was a mid-March flight to Hemet that started the unraveling of Sandoval's operation. That flight, which set out from El Cajon's Gillespie Field, Ronnie Walter's home base, contained FBI-supplied sham cocaine.
Today, FBI's Mefford couldn't be happier. "Many times we saw this [operation on the point of collapse], and we had to sit down and brainstorm, and that's what makes you the better chess player. Sometimes you make a move you think is brilliant, and then your counterpart makes another move that puts you in check, and you don't know where he came from, and then, just when you think it's all over, you come up with another brilliant move.... That's what makes it exhilarating and exciting. When you do the endgame and put him in checkmate, then you know you're the better player.
"I want to emphasize that this was a joint investigation with DEA, FBI, Chula Vista Police Department, IRS, and INS. We brought together investigators from all these agencies [partly because] our intention was to target the organization. Not just individuals."
Mr. Sandoval, Michael believes, is looking at 20 years. "He's a CCE, continuing criminal enterprise, which carries that penalty for all the subjects involved. So ultimately we feel that we have a very, very strong case."
But what kind of a dent does this put in the Arellano Félix brothers' influence in San Diego? Probably not that big, acknowledges Michael. "It's pervasive. But I do think we do have an impact. This case highlights the fact that we're not out of the game."