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.