Photoillustration by Frank Hamilton; photo by Frank Klein

Photoillustration by Frank Hamilton; photo by Frank Klein ( / January 26, 2015)

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.