FBI agents, CIA operatives and Delta Force soldiers surveil Mexican drug cartel bosses and employ extra-legal methods to secretly aid more pro-American narcotics traffickers win a larger slice of the multi-billion-dollar annual enterprise in the 2015 award-winning flick Sicario.
Hollywood is terrific at dramatizing fictional crime thrillers, but here on Orange County’s streets—even in its most posh neighborhoods like Corona del Mar—the real life war over illicit drug distribution plays out in a daily cat and mouse game that occasionally produces interesting tidbits of public information.
For example, Customs and Border Patrol agents in San Diego allow vehicles loaded with cocaine, marijuana and heroin to enter and reach deep into California. The tactic isn’t to aid the traffickers, but rather to gain law enforcement intelligence. Officers secretly place GPS tracking devices on targeted vehicles and government aircraft flying at high altitudes study drug trade routes as well as identify the location of co-conspirators while couriers ignorantly believe they’ve avoided detection.
In 2014, Orange County FBI agents and their local police colleagues in the Regional Narcotics Suppression Program launched an investigation into the Sinaloa international trafficking cartel led by drug kingpin Joaquin Archivaldo Guzman (a.k.a. “El Chapo”).
Guzman, who has gained infamy for the savageness of his lucrative enterprise and repeated escapes from custody, is presently fighting extradition to a maximum-security U.S. prison, but nearly three years ago federal agents were secretly tracking his California shipments, according to court records reviewed by OC Weekly.
While the full success of the operation isn’t known, the U.S. Department of Justice in Los Angeles recently provided rare glimpses into monitoring of Sinaloa's extensive network. As you might expect, their revelations were both guarded and motivated. Federal officials want to formally deposit $126,000 of El Chapo’s alleged financial proceeds into government bank accounts.
In January, undercover agents, who’d been tracking drug shipments from Mexico to a Buena Park gas station near I-5, arranged the traffic stop of a suspected Sinaloa courier driving a blue 2000 Chevrolet S10 pickup truck near Pacific Coast Highway and Fashion Island in a high-income section of Corona del Mar. Based on surveillance, the agents already knew what they’d find. Inside a Stater Bros. variety ice-cream box, they recovered 637 one hundred dollar bills, 72 fifty dollar bills, 2,890 twenty dollar bills, 55 ten dollar bills and 66 five dollar bills.
Federal officials also report that a trained, state-certified narcotics detection canine named “Merit,” a Labrador Retriever, signaled the cash “had been in the close proximity with narcotics,” though I suspect a sizable portion of Southern California cash might trigger a similar alert.
In a spin-off operation, agents intercepted 40 pounds of Sinaloa methamphetamine from a public storage unit near Fullerton's airport.
Given it is highly unlikely El Chapo or his representatives will appear in court to contest the seizures, U.S. District Court Judge James V. Selna will probably grant the government's ownership claims in coming weeks inside Santa Ana's Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse.
R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; and hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing Southern California law enforcement corruption.