How some Alaska residents help the Sinaloa Cartel smuggle drugs north
In May of last year, a woman entered the United States from Mexico at the port of entry in Nogales, Arizona. The Alaska resident was headed home.
It's a trip she made several times, but this one was different.
She was stopped at a border patrol checkpoint north of Nogales, where she was found to have 200 grams of cocaine on her person.
The woman is identified as "Female Individual 2" in a federal court document that was sealed on Tuesday, after being accessible to the public for months. The document is a warrant filed by a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent investigating the trafficking of drugs to Alaska.
Female Individual 2 was carrying roughly $20,000 worth of cocaine, according to a street value estimate from the Anchorage Police Department.
She represents a small piece of a puzzle that is largely kept secret: The inner workings of the Sinaloa Cartel, a Transnational Criminal Organization (TCO) based in Sonora, Mexico.
The Sinaloa Cartel
Formerly run by El Chapo, prosecutors have called the Sinaloa Cartel “the world’s largest and most prolific drug trafficking organization.”
In its 2018 National Drug Threat Assessment, the DEA states:
"Mexican TCOs remain the greatest criminal drug threat to the United States; no other group is currently positioned to challenge them. The Sinaloa Cartel maintains the most expansive footprint in the United States... [...] The Sinaloa Cartel exports and distributes wholesale amounts of methamphetamine, marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and fentanyl in the United States by maintaining distribution hubs in cities that include Phoenix, Los Angeles, Denver, and Chicago."
The Sinaloa Cartel is also linked to the largest seizure of fentanyl in U.S. history — 66 kilograms of fentanyl the DEA discovered in an apartment in Queens, New York in 2017.
“...the world’s largest and most prolific drug trafficking organization.”
According to the DEA, the Sinaloa Cartel utilizes subterranean tunnels leading from Mexico to safe houses on the other side of the border in the U.S. to smuggle drugs by the ton.
The cartel's methods were exposed during the trial of drug lord El Chapo, whose real name is Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera.
The Washington Post reported in January:
"The billions of dollars’ worth of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines and marijuana came through elaborate tunnels, including one built under the U.S.-Mexico border that originated below a pool table at an estate, Guzmán’s associates said. Drugs were hidden in trucks and trains, amid gallons of cooking oil and concealed in small cans of hot peppers, rolling through official entry points. Some came into the United States via container ships docking at Pacific ports. All of it was destined for sale in cities and towns across America."
Alaska's DEA Assistant Special Agent in Charge Michael Root said the Sinaloa Cartel is the largest organization they deal with in Anchorage.
"A lot of our meth and heroin comes up through the Sinaloa Cartel," he explained. "A lot of it will stop in California or Washington, and then come up to Alaska through either the airlines or postal service or carriers — a lot of it's body-carried or carried on a person."
When asked why cartels bother to send drugs all the way to Alaska, Root said it's all about the money.
"There’s plenty of business everywhere, sadly, but there’s also a demand up in the Anchorage area. [...] The prices they get, it makes it very lucrative for them to distribute up here," he explained.
Root likened it to shopping online and paying extra for shipping. The additional effort required to smuggle drugs north to Alaska drives a higher price point.
"The farther you’re away from the flag pole, which is coming through Mexico, the higher the price goes up," he said. "They’re pretty much paying somebody to do that extra step from the Lower 48 up to Alaska."
The now-sealed warrant describes the journey of drugs to Alaska by person.
During an interview with Homeland Security Investigations agents, Female Individual 2 said she was working for a member of the Sinaloa Cartel, that she'd made roughly 10 similar trips, and she received a flat-rate payment of $2,000 per trip.
"FEMALE INDIVIDUAL 2 was hired to transport the cocaine on her person to Alaska on behalf of the Transnational Criminal Organization officers are investigating. FEMALE INDIVIDUAL 2 went on to state her duties consisted of not only transporting various drugs, but also recruiting and handling other female individuals to body carry drugs from Mexico to Alaska."
The woman told investigators she was a "team leader."
According to the warrant, team leaders are cartel workers sent from Mexico or Arizona to Alaska. They represent the organization while the drugs are being dispensed.
Female Individual 2 also told investigators the process for body-carrying drugs across the border had changed, following the arrest of a another Alaska woman who worked for the cartel.
"FEMALE INDIVIDUAL 2 went on to say that after she received possession of narcotics in Mexico, she was directed to turn over the narcotics to an unknown Mexican female individual in Nogales. Sonora. FEMALE INDIVIDUAL 2 would then cross the border, into the United States, and resume possession of the narcotics from the previously mentioned unknown Mexican female at a fast food restaurant in Nogales, Arizona."
According to the warrant, officers suspected the woman of being a drug user and she had a criminal history, which included charges for false information, assault, false report, vehicle theft and driving with a suspended license.
The document lists five women in total — all Alaska residents — believed to be couriers for the Sinaloa Cartel in May of last year.
Root believes dozens of Alaska women could be involved right now.
"It’s a very dangerous game they’re playing."
"It’s usually younger women. They might not be college-educated, they might be struggling with say, raising a child on their own. They might have money issues. Their boyfriend talked them into doing this, their economic status is probably not that high, and they see a chance," he explained.
It's a dangerous game, according to Root. The package could rupture internally, with fatal consequences. And if something happens and the courier doesn't deliver, the individual waiting for the drugs could respond with violence.
"That’s quick cash if you’re not making your house payment, you’re not making your rent payment or you have a mouth to feed, so they kind of get sucked into that system thinking they’ll just do it once, they won’t get caught and that isn’t always the case," said Root.
When asked if the cartel is preying on Alaska's vulnerable populations, Root replied, "They really do. I’ve seen that for the last 24 years since I’ve been on DEA. They look for the weakest links that can use the money the most and kinda get them hooked into that lifestyle of, 'Hey, that’s a quick $1,000. If I do it three times a week, that’s $3,000 a week.' Quick, easy money and you’re not paying taxes on it. Until you get caught, there’s no repercussions."
Once the courier arrives at the Anchorage airport, the drugs are handed off to a cartel worker who has been sent to Alaska to distribute the drugs.
Tools of the trade
Information in the warrant stresses that chatting apps on cell phones are the Sinaloa Cartel's primary means of communicating, strategizing and organizing.
The applications can make it more difficult for investigators to trace conversations, however members of the cartel are still known to leave a significant paper trail.
The warrant describes known methods of operation including the following:
- Cell phones (including burner phones and long-distance calling cards) are used “extensively” to communicate, coordinate and organize.
- Cartel workers are known to operate out of various Anchorage hotels, often using a car to leave the hotel for a drug deal, then returning.
- Members attempt to acquire firearms to carry during the distribution of drugs in Alaska.
- It is increasingly common for members to use direct cash deposits to move money.
- Members also use fraudulent identification to subscribe for telephone service, purchase travel arrangements, transfer funds, and rent storage facilities and residences.
- Drug trafficking organizations recruit couriers to transport drugs and money. They pay a flat rate, plus expenses.
- It is common for drug traffickers to take photos/videos of themselves together. They also take photos/videos with drugs, large sums of money, guns and expensive assets.
- Drug traffickers utilize foreign and domestic banks for services including cashier’s checks, safe deposit boxes, and money drafts.
- The purchase/sale of real estate can be used to legitimize their profits.
- Businesses, both real and fictitious, are used to conceal distribution of drugs and money.
- Drug traffickers are often in possession of handwritten notes with instructions, deposit slips, ledgers containing business/client information etc.
Root doesn't believe the women transporting drugs are a threat to those around them, but said drug trafficking in general creates risk in our communities.
"I do believe gun violence and drug trafficking go hand in hand," he said.
"It’s really not a victimless crime."
While the average citizen might not pick up on drug trafficking signs around them, Root believes Alaskans see the effects of the illegal narcotics industry daily.
"I think we notice it when our cars get broke into because drug addicts are out trying to make a quick buck stealing something out of your car. I think we notice it when we see people laying on the side of the park path, you know, overdosing from meth and heroin," he said. "I think it does affect our lives and sometimes, we’re not dealing with, you know, that murder happened over there and it was between two drug dealers, but you know, that’s our quality of life. That’s our kids getting shot by a stray bullet or whatever, so really, it affects us, everybody in Alaska in one way or another."
Signs of drugs on a journey
Root says Alaskans can help by watching their loved ones for signs of addiction, sudden wealth and frequent, unexplained trips:
A large-scale investigation
The warrant references a dozen individuals who are all connected in some way.
The glimpse of the Sinaloa Cartel's intricate web of operatives offered in the warrant merely scratches the surface of the organization's structure but offers the most detailed look yet at how Alaskans are involved in the seemingly endless cycle of supply and demand.
"...it affects us, everybody in Alaska, in one way or another."
Information provided in the warrant was learned through the use of undercover agents, controlled buys, drug-sniffing K-9 units and cooperating defendants. The effort to disrupt the cartel spans several states and has been ongoing for years.
"We have numerous open investigations and our partners have numerous open investigations," Root said. "Sometimes they take a while. We have to, you know, prove these in court. We have to get search warrants, arrest warrants, we might do surveillance for three months. We do have an end game, we do go after the biggest and baddest traffickers. Sometimes it takes time, and we’re continually making arrests and putting bad guys in jail. And we’re gonna keep doing that."
As for the Sinaloa Cartel, Root can sum up the DEA's end game in two words.
Editor's note: Some information contained in the warrant has been intentionally withheld in the interest of an ongoing investigation.
Copyright 2019 KTVA. All rights reserved.
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