San Diego Union-Tribune March 1, 2007
little-known Mexican drug trafficking organization,
which operated without the notoriety of more violent
rivals like the Arellano Félix gang, was taken down
yesterday during a multistate bust announced in San
Diego by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
Investigators discovered the Cazares Gastellum cartel
about two years ago in the border towns of the Imperial
Valley . It was first thought to be a small operation
but turned out to be a massive ring that moved a large
portion of the U.S. cocaine supply from South America to
a distribution center in San Diego to at least 23
states, officials said.
Sixty-six people were arrested in a predawn sting
yesterday in San Diego , Calexico, El Centro , Brawley
and elsewhere in California , Arizona and Illinois .
22-month sting, code-named “Operation Imperial Emperor,”
has netted 402 people suspected of working for the
cartel, more than $45 million in cash and tons of
cocaine, heroin and marijuana, said Gonzales, flanked by
recently installed interim San Diego U.S. Attorney Karen
“Today's operation is a serious blow to one of the
largest and most significant trafficking organizations,”
Gonzales said. “These arrests demonstrate what can be
achieved when domestic and international law enforcement
partners team up against a common foe.”
Emilio Cazares Gastellum, the alleged kingpin of the
family-run cartel, was indicted by a San Diego grand
jury Feb. 23 along with 18 of his suspected lieutenants
and foot soldiers on drug, conspiracy and money
laundering charges. Cazares remains in Mexico and has
not been arrested; U.S. officials said they will
immediately seek extradition of Cazares and others.
Cazares Gastellum drug empire that rose to such heights
of power in only two years, fell today,” said Karen P.
Tandy, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, the
lead agency in the investigation. “This sprawling drug
domain, headquartered in Mexico , penetrated deep into
all corners of this country. Today we ripped out this
empire's U.S. infrastructure ... and tossed it into the
dustbin of history.”
Cazares' top lieutenant and son-in-law, Jose Oscar Del
Castillo Gallardo, from Sinaloa, was arrested Jan. 20
during a ski trip to Big Bear Lake , said San Diego
prosecutor Michael Kaplan.
Castillo acted as a liaison between his father-in-law,
the drug supplier and the head of the transportation
arm, Carlos Cuevas Jr., of Calexico, who also was
arrested Jan. 20, Kaplan said. Both were indicted in San
Diego as well.
Officials said the group is an Arellano Félix rival that
is aligned with traffickers Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada and
Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
Guzman, based in Sinaloa, is alleged to be the country's
most powerful drug leader. He escaped from a
maximum-security prison in 2001 and is at large.
Diego – the base of the drug distribution network – five
suspected Cazares cartel members were arrested yesterday
in Otay Mesa and Paradise Hills at homes and a business,
and agents seized three guns and five vehicles, said DEA
Special Agent Dan Simmons. Fourteen others were taken
into custody in the Imperial Valley , with $50,000 and
17 vehicles seized, Simmons said.
According to the indictment, Cazares' organization
shipped tons of drugs from Colombia and Venezuela
through Central America to Mexico . The narcotics were
then smuggled across the Southwestern border.
organization shared the hallmarks of other large cartels
– operating as a corporation, using subcontractors to
move the drugs via land, air and sea. They often hid
drugs in sophisticated compartments in Chevrolet
Avalanche pickups or tractor-trailers and drove them
through border crossings in Calexico, Kaplan said.
the group was unique for taking circuitous routes
through the backcountry to move drugs, officials said.
They crossed the border through the Imperial Sand Dunes,
a popular spot with off-roaders, Kaplan said.
instance, traffickers carried drugs over the U.S.-Mexico
border on a bridge created with sandbags submerged in
the Colorado River outside Yuma , Ariz.
group also behaved more like a business with cells that
carried out specific tasks and were insulated from the
other cells in case they were discovered. For instance,
one lieutenant ran the transportation aspects, another
difficult to say how long the cartel has operated, or
when it began to dominate the trafficking market, Kaplan
“They're definitely a very sophisticated trafficking
organization that moved overwhelmingly significant
quantities of narcotics,” he said. “It's not like they
suddenly emerged yesterday. They've probably been around
for a while, just undetected.”
said no evidence exists that the Cazares cartel used the
violent methods of other groups. “But I'm not telling
you it doesn't occur.”
investigation was so complex, with so many targets and
so many agencies involved across the country, that it
was coordinated by DEA headquarters in Washington , D.C.
More than 100 federal, state and local law enforcement
agencies participated in the sweep.
case went from a very small case to an enormous case
with national implications,” said Simmons of the San
Diego DEA office. “A very small office in the Imperial
Valley made a heck of a case with DEA.