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Corner Cartel

A federal trial shows how Mexican cartel drugs get to Baltimore street corners

Van Smith

February 23, 2011

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Ronald Eugene Brown was a natural target for Baltimore narcotics investigators. The 6-foot-6-inch, 240-pound man, nicknamed “Truck,” had already served many years in prison for 1990s drug-dealing and robbery convictions, and his rehabilitation after getting out was, well, dubious. The 44-year-old had lost his low-paying job as a forklift operator, yet he somehow could afford to have two Baltimore County residences (in Overlea and Ten Hills), a BMW, a Mercedes, and a Dodge Ram pickup truck. His comfortable, middle-class lifestyle defied explanation—but for the fact that he was a habitué of the drug-infested Monument Street corridor near Baltimore City’s Northeast Market.

When the probe into Brown began, it was standard Baltimore cop fare: A confidential source arranged to buy a small amount of drugs from Brown on the evening of April 27, 2009, and the cops followed Brown to see where he would lead them. Before the sun rose the next morning, they had about $750,000 in heat-sealed, aluminum-wrapped cash at the Marriott Waterfront Hotel and two men suspected of being Brown’s suppliers. The case’s significance snowballed, and by February 2010, it had unearthed mammoth shipments of Mexican cartel cocaine and marijuana coming to Baltimore from Texas every two weeks.

Indications of drug cartel ties to Baltimore are not new. The 1991 assassination of Baltimore shipping executive John Shotto outside a Broening Highway warehouse, for instance, was ordered by the Cali cartel after Shotto crossed them on a deal involving a drug-transporting ship. More recently, in 2008, federal defendants in Baltimore with ties to the Black Guerrilla Family prison gang and the politically connected Rice Organization cocaine ring (“Wired,” Mobtown Beat, March 2, 2005) were nabbed for bringing drugs to Baltimore from the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico (“Mexican Connection,” Mobtown Beat, March 4, 2009; “Stuck in the Middle,” Mobtown Beat, Aug. 26, 2009). And last year, a Mexican drug trafficker was caught by law enforcers unpacking cocaine from a car he was dismantling in a secure garage in Owings Mills (“Direct Connections,” Mobtown Beat, March 3, 2010).

What’s different about this case is how thoroughly and publicly it connects the dots between Baltimore players and the cartels. For reasons only they know, Brown’s suppliers—45-year-old Wade Conroy Coats of Baltimore and 43-year-old Jose Roberto Cavazos of Midlothian, Texas—decided not to plead guilty. Perhaps it was due to the fact that one of the investigators in the case, former Baltimore Police Detective Mark Lunsford, is serving prison time for theft and lying after pleading guilty to crimes tied, in part, to this investigation (“Costly Charges,” Mobtown Beat, Nov. 11, 2009). But since Coats and Cavazos fought the charges, the evidence against them was paraded before a jury, who listened, riveted, to five days of testimony in February.

To help persuade the jury, assistant U.S. attorneys James Wallner and Peter Nothstein debuted a government cooperator named Alex Noel Mendoza-Cano, who detailed how he got hundreds of pounds of cartel drugs to Cavazos, Coats, and their co-conspirators until he was arrested in December 2009. Combined with the mountains of other evidence in the case, including phone and financial records and step-by-step accounts of investigators’ work, Mendoza-Cano’s testimony revealed how sophisticated and skilled high-level drug traffickers are in cloaking their high-volume dealings behind appearances of legitimate business activity. The jury apparently believed what it heard, since it convicted the two men on Feb. 7, after deliberating for about an hour.

While law enforcers say this was the first time Mendoza-Cano testified in open court, it is likely not the last. As the man who, for five years prior to his arrest in Texas on drug charges, coordinated massive shipments of drugs and cash across the United States on behalf of the Gulf and Los Zetas cartels in Mexico, Mendoza-Cano “knows too much,” he told the Baltimore jury. Mexican cartels’ drug-fueled violence is deemed responsible for 34,000 murders in Mexico over the past four years, and Mendoza-Cano says he intends to share what he knows about cartel operations—not just in this case, but others as well—in a bid for leniency when he is sentenced eventually.

Mendoza-Cano’s testimony was a rare public moment in law enforcement. It gave the cross-continental context for the drugs that change hands on countless street corners every day in Baltimore and other cities. But the trial is also a striking example of how law enforcers, with some luck and persistence—and despite mistakes along the way, including corruption in their ranks—can turn a penny-ante probe into a major case that rattles the cartels’ supply chain.

Coats and Cavazos entered the courtroom as if they are entering a boardroom. With their stylish suits and eyeglasses and casual confidence, they had the look and bearing of lawyers, not drug defendants escorted by U.S. marshals. It’s hard to believe they’d been chilling in prison ever since their arrests 21 months ago; rather than a bunk behind bars, they look as if they’d slept in a nice bed in a nice house in a nice part of town. They’re both stocky, though Cavazos is taller than Coats, and both had well-groomed hair and mustaches.

Until they were charged, neither one had a criminal record. They were the picture of legitimate businessmen, plying their trades. Coats had a cell phone store called Keeping it in the Community, on Duncan Street near the Northeast Market. Cavazos, who testified under direct examination by his defense attorney, Marc Zayon, that he helped found a Hispanic business association in Dallas, was a car dealer and pawnshop owner. They met, according to Cavazos, in the late 1990s at a small-business convention in Dallas, and struck up a friendship based on Cavazos’ desire—never realized—to add cell phones to the mix of products he sold.

Coats, according to court filings by his attorney, Ivan Bates, was born in Jamaica, though he has lived in Baltimore since coming here as a youngster. Until his arrest, he’d believed he was a U.S. citizen, and has since applied to become one. He’s a political donor, having given $500 to Republican Michael Steele’s unsuccessful campaign to become a Maryland U.S. senator and another $800 to the Republican National Committee (“Armed Drug Dealer for Steele?” Mobtown Beat, June 17, 2009). He is the father of four; two, from a previous marriage, are now adults and live in Ohio, and two are children, living in Baltimore with Coats’ fiancee.

Cavazos described himself to the jury as a hard-working businessman who bootstrapped himself up from humble beginnings in Mexico. He came to the United States in 1975, became a legal U.S. resident in 1979, and in 1980, when he was 12 years old, moved with his family to Dallas from San Bernardino, Calif. He attended school “until my father pulled me out in 10th grade,” he said, since in his culture “the oldest child usually has to help the father with his siblings.” After years of working a variety of jobs—at a Denny’s Restaurant, at a pawnshop, in lawn-care, and as a security guard—he ended up as a pawnshop owner, and then started selling used cars bought at auctions and fixed up. The businesses flourished, and, as the years rolled by, he became a business leader in his community. He married in 1987, and has five children and three grandchildren.

So how did these two men, with longstanding success in running small businesses and no criminal records, end up accused of being cartel drug traffickers? It started on a Wednesday night, April 27, 2009, when the police watched “Truck” Brown meet a man in front of Milan restaurant and nightclub in Little Italy and slip a package of what they suspected was cash into the man’s car. They then watched the man drive to the nearby Baltimore Marriott Inner Harbor hotel, enter the hotel with luggage, and, about half an hour later, leave empty-handed. The man then went briefly to Mo’s Seafood House in Little Italy and on to a cell phone store on Duncan Street. He parked his car and entered the store.

At 1:35 a.m. on April 28, when the man exited the cell phone store, he was calmly and cordially interviewed by the police, who learned his name was Wade Coats. It was the beginning of the end for Coats and Cavazos, whose legitimacy quickly started to unravel.

Brian Shutt has clocked in on some serious cases since he first became a Baltimore cop in 2002. But this investigation, which he led as a task-force officer assigned to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Group 54 Major Drug Trafficker Initiative (HIDTA Group 54), is huge. Before the jury, his eyes often beamed and flashed beneath his short-cropped blond hair, belying the emotional and professional investment he has in convincing them that, despite its problems, this case is solid.

There were several moments during Shutt’s testimony that revealed his guilelessness about how the investigation progressed, warts and all. Embarrassing, yes, but he owned them—though he wasn’t going to play up the missteps as all that important, either. When they arose in the course of the trial, he addressed them, and looked at the jury as if to say, “I wish it wasn’t so, but it is what it is.”

The first misstep put him and his Group 54 colleagues in danger, though no one was harmed. It happened during the arrest of Wade Coats.

Their interaction with Coats on Duncan Street had resulted in a host of reasons to suspect that criminal activity was afoot. The detectives had observed Coats entering and leaving the hotel earlier, yet when Shutt interviewed him, Coats denied he’d been there. So Shutt called a K-9 unit to the scene, which alerted police to the odor of drugs in Coats’ rented car, giving the detectives the right to search the vehicle. They found no drugs, but they did find a scanner set to monitor Baltimore Police and DEA frequencies and two Maryland drivers’ licenses in Coats’ name—in addition to the one Coats had already shown Shutt when they first spoke.

While searching Coats’ car, Shutt told the jury, he started “watching Mr. Coats’ body language because it had changed. I saw him start blading himself”—“blading” being a “characteristic of an armed person,” in which they keep the side of the body where a gun is turned away from the police. That’s when Shutt realized “no one had patted down Mr. Coats.” Now there wasn’t going to be a pat-down.

“I reach right in, I feel the gun, and I scream, ‘Gun!’” Shutt testified. Coats was tackled, cuffed, and read his Miranda rights. He’d had a loaded .40-caliber handgun in his waistband the whole time. He also had $7,000 in cash on him, $5,000 of it stuffed in his sock.

“It was a bad move on my part,” Shutt told the jury, regarding his failure to pat Coats down. “I should have done it as soon as we suspected criminal activity was afoot, especially when the dog hit.” It was a “very, very scary” and “potentially very violent” situation, he said.

As for the scanner, Shutt testified that Coats said, “’I got it from K-Mart and it came with those frequencies,’” adding, “We kind of laugh at that, because that’s not true.”

Later, as Coats was being loaded onto the police transport to take him to lockup, Shutt told the jury, “He stops, turns around, and says, ‘There’s your side of the story, there’s my side of the story, and there’s the truth. We’ll see what the judge believes.’”

Shutt and his crew hightail it to the hotel, Coats’ three IDs in hand. When they get there, the hotel staff checks the registry and finds that Coats has rented Room 943. Shutt, his crew, and hotel security go up to the floor and walk down the hallway toward the room—a “fatal funnel,” Shutt explained, since “we don’t have any place to hide to shield ourselves from being shot.” His “senses are heightened” and he believes “we need to act swiftly and tactfully at this point,” but the hotel security staff balk at letting them in without a warrant. So they knock on the door, screaming “Police!” Cavazos answers it, and “could not have been” more cooperative and agreeable in what was a very tense situation.

Shutt’s second mistake was harmless, but telling. According to Cavazos, Shutt screamed “We got kilos! We got kilos!” after he’d found a bag of vacuum-packed, heat-sealed blocks wrapped in aluminum foil in Cavazos’ room. “He was jumping up and down,” Cavazos recalled on the stand, and “people next door were complaining about the noise.”

Shutt’s account was more muted. “I get very excited, because I think I just found kilos,” he told the jury.

But Shutt was wrong.

After reading Cavazos his Miranda rights, Shutt testified, “Mr. Cavazos informs me it’s not drugs, it’s money,” adding that Cavazos admitted to him that “he is just the money counter,” “that there are no drugs here yet,” and that “I count the money to make sure it’s right, and then the drugs come.” And there was a lot of money—all told, about three-quarters of a million dollars, found in the hotel room and in Cavazos’ minivan, parked in the hotel garage.

Cavazos, however, testified that all he told Shutt was, “That’s my money,” and nothing else.

Shutt’s third mistake, though, goes to his credibility. Shutt admitted under cross-examination that, in June 2009, he misled a federal grand jury about the case. Contrary to his trial testimony, he told the grand jury that neither Coats nor Cavazos made any statements after being read their Miranda rights. Confronted on this by Coats’ defense attorney, Ivan Bates, Shutt meekly contended that he “may have been confused by the question from the grand jury.”

The most acute vulnerability of the case against Coats and Cavazos was not Shutt’s conflicting testimony or his tactical errors. It was, instead, the case’s most hard-fought legal issue during the many months before it came to trial: former HIDTA Group 54 detective Mark Lunsford’s involvement in the investigation, and to what extent information about Lunsford’s crimes—in which he falsely credited information to a paid informant, with whom he would split the proceeds, and stole valuables from suspects—should be available for the jury’s consideration.

The question even led to the cancellation of a previously scheduled trial in the case, for which a jury was seated and then dismissed in October 2010. Ultimately, U.S. District Judge William Quarles, who presided over the trial, blocked defense attorneys’ efforts to have Lunsford take the stand before the jury. But, on the last day of testimony, the two sides agreed to stipulate for the jury that Lunsford was in prison after a conviction for theft and lying, that a watch belonging to Coats had been found in his possession, and that he had given clothing that belonged to Cavazos to a cooperating source in the FBI investigation that ultimately led to the September 2009 charges against him.

The defense team exploited the Lunsford factor as best it could. Since there were discrepancies in the investigative record about the amount of money recovered from Cavazos’ hotel room and minivan, there was room to create doubt about whether Lunsford had helped himself to some of it. Shutt had testified, after all, that Lunsford was left alone for hours in the hotel room and with the minivan. This meant that when Cavazos testified, and told the jury that all that money was not for cartel drugs, but was actually his winnings in an illegal Texas Hold ’em poker game that took place over a four-day period in Baltimore just prior to his arrest, he could boldly state that he’d been robbed by the police.

“They stole over $200,000,” Cavazos told the jury. “It was taken by the police. . . . They lied and they stole.”

Shutt shared his feelings about Lunsford’s crimes with the jury. After a long, thoughtful pause, he said: “I don’t lie, cheat, or steal, and I don’t tolerate anyone who does. It was a black mark on my police career because someone I worked with, without my knowledge, was committing criminal acts. It has taken a toll on me personally and professionally.”

After arresting Coats, Cavazos, and Brown, and conducting search warrants all over town in connection with their suspected drug-dealing scheme, Shutt knew there was more yet to find. The first order of business was to try to secure Brown’s cooperation. That was obtained immediately; given Brown’s serious criminal background, which would expose him to a severe sentence in this case, he was eager to help himself in any way he could in order to gain the possibility of leniency. But Brown’s help only went so far—he could say he had gone into business with Coats, selling about five to 10 kilograms of cocaine Coats had provided him in 2008 and 2009, but he didn’t know who Coats’ supplier was, and he’d never even heard of Cavazos. Based solely on the fact that Cavazos was a Hispanic male from Texas, Shutt suspected cartels in the picture, but he had nothing to prove it.

So Shutt started going through what he had so far. He had a flash drive from Coats’ briefcase that contained photos of two people Brown did know: associates of Coats, whom Brown called “Jimmy” and “B.” By following other clues—records of phone calls, text messages, financial dealings, airline flights, and the like—he established numerous links between Coats and Cavazos. But who were “Jimmy” and “B”?

Shutt told the jury that communications are drug dealers’ “weakest link,” and narcotics investigators such as himself are trained to exploit them. In Coats’ phone, he found something to exploit: phone calls and a text message from James Bostic, all right around the time Cavazos was staying at the Baltimore Inner Harbor Marriott. The text message read: “Home boy is alright. I’m about to head up.” Shutt’s interpretation of this, he explained to the jury, is that Bostic is letting Coats know that Cavazos has arrived at the hotel, and that Bostic is taking the elevator up to meet him.

The Bostic angle was tantalizing. Shutt was able to learn that Bostic owned a house in Dover, Pa., outside of York, two doors down from one owned by Coats and his fiancee, Shannon Best. He was able to determine that the man Brown called “Jimmy” was, in fact, Bostic. He knew Bostic was involved somehow, but he needed a break.

Shutt’s big break came in December 2009, when the FBI in Dallas called him shortly after they’d arrested a man in Texas with nine kilos of cocaine. This man, the FBI said, had immediately begun to cooperate, and had provided intelligence that James Bostic was Wade Coats’ partner. This man, of course, was Mendoza-Cano, and Bostic did not yet know Mendoza-Cano had been arrested. Neither did the Mexican cartel for whom he had been working. The investigation suddenly kicked into high gear to nab Bostic—and to establish with unexpected clarity that, despite its origins as a routine drug bust of a run-of-the-mill Baltimore drug dealer nicknamed “Truck,” this case was really about the far reach of ruthless Mexican cartels.

Like Coats and Cavazos, 34-year-old Mendoza-Cano did not look like a stereotypical drug dealer. Unlike the defendants, though, he didn’t look like a businessman, either. Instead, he looked like someone who could easily pass by unnoticed—a useful trait, given his chosen profession. A small man with dark hair, he wore a dark blue tunic and pants with a long-sleeved white T-shirt underneath. Over the course of his translator-interpreted testimony, his eager, matter-of-fact candor seemed not to match the shocking words coming out of his mouth. Despite the trouble he’s in—with U.S. law enforcers, with the cartel—he seemed not to have a care in the world. In fact, he seemed to be enjoying himself.

Mendoza-Cano said he was one of the Gulf cartel’s Houston-based distributors, orchestrating regular, large-scale shipments of Mexican drugs to points in the United States. Sometimes the drugs arrived from Mexico “in trailers,” he said; other times “in a car, between six and nine kilos in a car, five to 10 cars per day.” Thus, counting only the amounts brought in by cars, Mendoza-Cano’s outfit was receiving up to 3 tons of cocaine each month, not including whatever came in trailers. Marijuana, he explained, came in “refrigerator truck trailers, 2,000 pounds per truck.”

Once in Houston, the drugs were transferred to other large vehicles, which delivered them across the country. “My line,” Mendoza-Cano said, “was [from] Houston to the central region [of the United States] and east. There are other people who work the West.”

Every two weeks, Mendoza-Cano would leave Houston in a motor home or moving van packed with 150 to 200 kilos of cocaine, make deliveries in Arkansas, Wisconsin, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware, then fill the vehicle with his customers’ cash on the return trip. Once back in Houston, he and the other route drivers would unload the cash for counting, re-packaging, and shipping to Mexico in tractor-trailers and cars—or sometimes jet skis and small boats crossing lakes along the border.

When Coats and Cavazos were arrested, the money Cavazos owed the cartel for 24 kilos of cocaine ended up in law enforcers’ hands. At $23,000 per kilo, Mendoza-Cano testified, Cavazos’ debt came to about $552,000, and someone needed to answer for it. James Bostic stepped up to the plate, offering to work it off by selling in Baltimore the cartel’s drugs that his now-incarcerated partners could no longer sell. Every two weeks during the second half of 2009, Mendoza-Cano delivered to Bostic 20 to 30 kilos of cocaine, or 600 to 700 pounds of marijuana, for distribution in Baltimore.

As Mendoza-Cano was dealing with Bostic, meanwhile, his cartel world was shaken. Los Zetas, which had previously operated as “the armed force” of the Gulf cartel, protecting its distribution routes, morphed into a cartel itself. Mendoza-Cano’s Gulf cartel boss, “Charlie,” met an untimely demise—“he was killed and he was cooked,” he testified—and was replaced by a Zetas called “Munchie,” who became Mendoza-Cano’s new boss. Then Mendoza-Cano was arrested.

When he was first charged, Mendoza-Cano said “the cartel provided me with” a lawyer, “but I refused that attorney, because any and everything I did would be provided as information to the cartel in Mexico. The reality was, I know too much. I was between a rock and a hard place. I’ve seen others go down and meet their end, and their families. In the type of work we did, it was either jail or death.” He took a Spanish-speaking public defender, who persuaded him to plead guilty and cooperate. First on the agenda? “I turned Jimmy in.”

Shutt and the FBI worked quickly. They wired a hotel room in White Marsh, and on Dec. 29, 2009—a mere 20 days after Mendoza-Cano’s arrest—played host to a pre-arranged meeting there between Bostic, a Zetas named Ismael Zamarro Villareal, and an American woman named Jessica, who had long served as Mendoza-Cano’s interpreter and aide-de-camp and now was his partner in cooperating with the government.

The resulting video was played for the jury, showing Bostic entering the room and bantering with Jessica as he opens a suitcase filled with approximately $590,000 in cash. The heat-sealing machine comes out, and the task of packaging the money for shipment—the same way Cavazos’ money was packaged when Shutt found it at the hotel—takes hours.

Later that night, Shutt watched as Villareal stashed the cash in a Ford Explorer parked outside. The next day, Jessica and Villareal left in the Explorer, which was pulled over on I-95 south of Baltimore. The money was seized, but Villareal was allowed to leave in order to protect Jessica’s cooperation.

Bostic, too, was not arrested after making this cartel payment. Instead, Shutt and the FBI set up another pre-arranged meeting, in a different wired hotel room in White Marsh, on Feb. 2, 2010. Jessica was there again, but this time the Zetas representative was not Villareal, but an undercover FBI agent. And this time, the purpose was not for Bostic to pay the cartel, but for the cartel to deliver drugs—actually 12 kilos of DEA cocaine, packaged in cartel fashion—to Bostic. The meeting didn’t last long. As a raid team moved in to arrest Bostic, he dropped a drug-laden suitcase and ran outside the hotel. After a short chase, Shutt tackled him into a snowbank.

The coup de grace in the investigation wasn’t aided by Mendoza-Cano. It was another stroke of luck for Shutt.

Earlier in the investigation, he’d figured out who the other guy was in the photo found on Coats’ flash drive, the guy Brown had called “B.” It was Brandon Isiah Barnes of Columbia, Md. Earlier, Shutt had been tracking phone communications between Bostic and Barnes, but with all the activity resulting from Mendoza-Cano’s cooperation, Barnes had gotten lost in the shuffle. Now that Bostic was arrested, Shutt checked his e-mails and noticed that the GPS coordinates of Barnes’ phone were still being sent to his inbox. They showed the phone was moving across the country, towards Midlothian, Texas, the Dallas suburb where Cavazos was from.

Shutt hustled out to Midlothian to look for Barnes, to no avail. So he kept watching the phone. Its GPS coordinates showed it traveling back to Baltimore. As Barnes drove up I-81 in Virginia, Shutt and his team eyeballed him when he passed them—they actually saw him at the wheel. When Barnes’ car entered Howard County in the wee hours of March 10, 2010, a Maryland State Police trooper who’d been alerted by Shutt clocked it speeding, pulled it over, and called for a K-9 scan. Lo and behold, about one and a half kilos of cartel coke was inside.

Barnes faces cocaine conspiracy charges in a separate federal case, scheduled for trial in August. Brown pleaded guilty, and his trial testimony established for the jury that Coats was his cocaine supplier; his sentencing hearing has not yet been scheduled. Bostic also pleaded guilty and received a 210-month prison sentence last year.

As for Mendoza-Cano, well, after his testimony ended he was whisked out of the courtroom, bound for parts unknown to help the government prosecute cartel cases elsewhere.

On Dec. 16, though, as the Coats-Cavazos case was gearing up for trial, a new drug-conspiracy indictment was filed against Mendoza-Cano, his Texas co-defendant, and two other men, in federal court in Ohio. The docket there indicates he didn’t show up for his arraignment in that case, scheduled for Feb. 10, eight days after he testified in Baltimore. Of Mendoza-Cano’s failure to appear, the Ohio court docket says this: “U.S. Marshal is unable to transport the defendant to Court as he is in Federal Custody in another District.”

It’s a safe bet the judge won’t hold it against him.