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Drugs, Guns, and Money: Anatomy of a West Coast Trafficking Ring
Editor’s Note: 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’ve passed a car or truck secretly holding a cargo of heroin, meth, or cocaine.
This week we’ll take you inside the world of drug-trafficking, an illegal business that touches every city, every small town in every state in the west. In the first part of our series Border to Border Drugs, correspondent Austin Jenkins introduces us to a smuggling ring that operated from Arizona to Washington state.
On Jan. 21, 2012 at 8:37 in the evening, 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, Victor and Jose discuss a gun with a grenade launcher attached, according to a transcript. At one point in the call, Victor says, “like the one from the movie Scarface.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Vincent Lombardi says those who’ve seen the movie will remember the scene: “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.”
“You know, that’s how they see themselves,” Lombardi added. “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. The group was based in western Washington and smuggled heroin and methamphetamine from Mexico.
Lombardi says the case started when a would-be informant walked into an office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, 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,” according to Lombardi.
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,” Lombardi said. “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, and then it would distributed out to different parts of the United States from here,” Lombardi said.
The drugs were moved to Washington by car from Arizona in hidden compartments behind the bumpers or dashboard. Lombardi says the couriers were selected so as not to draw the attention of police, ideally non-Hispanic couples.
“Because I think they think that’s less likely to attract law enforcement attention,” Lombardi said.
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,” said Anne Harkonen, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations who worked the case.
Harkonen 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, we were able to get $170,000 out of a car that was proceeds, over $200,000 in a storage locker,” she said.
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.
Lombardi says in his experience, that connection doesn’t often reveal itself. But this case was different.
“The had direct ties to a Mexican drug cartel,” he said.
He points to one phone conversation in particular between the oldest Berrelleza-Verduzco brother Cristian, who 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. Well, Arturo Beltran-Leyva, Hector Beltran-Leyva,”’ Lombardi said.
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, more than $500,000 in cash and numerous guns.
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, and two have been sentenced. Each has retained a private attorney. George Trejo represents the third brother, Ivan.
“I receive payment to represent him. I don’t know where that payment actually came from,” said attorney George Trejo, who is representing Ivan Berrelleza-Verduzco. 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. This is a small cell,” he said.
Not surprisingly, Lombardi takes issue with that characterization.
“I mean, I think it was significant. 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,” he said.
And, adds Lombardi, it is certainly significant for the individuals charged in the case, some of whom will now serve lengthy sentences in a federal prison