Drug crime sends first-time offender grandmom to prison for life

May 10, 2012

Houston Chronicle on May 10, 2012 released the following:

“Houstonian, who has no secrets to trade, is doing more time than drug lords
By Dane Schiller

FORT WORTH – The U.S. government didn’t offer a reward for the capture of Houston grandmother Elisa Castillo, nor did it accuse her of touching drugs, ordering killings, or getting rich off crime.

But three years after a jury convicted her in a conspiracy to smuggle at least a ton of cocaine on tour buses from Mexico to Houston, the 56-year-old first-time offender is locked up for life – without parole.

“It is ridiculous,” said Castillo, who is a generation older than her cell mates, and is known as “grandma” at the prison here. “I am no one.”

Convicted of being a manager in the conspiracy, she is serving a longer sentence than some of the hemisphere’s most notorious crime bosses – men who had multimillion-dollar prices on their heads before their capture.

The drug capos had something to trade: the secrets of criminal organizations. The biggest drug lords have pleaded guilty in exchange for more lenient sentences.

Castillo said she has nothing to offer in a system rife with inconsistencies and behind-the-scenes scrambling that amounts to a judicial game of Let’s Make A Deal.

“Our criminal justice system is broke; it needs to be completely revamped,” declared Terry Nelson, who was a federal agent for over 30 years and is on the executive board of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. “They have the power, and if you don’t play the game, they’ll throw the book at you.”

Castillo maintains her innocence, saying she was tricked into unknowingly helping transport drugs and money for a big trafficker in Mexico. But she refused to plead guilty and went to trial.

In 2010, of 1,766 defendants prosecuted for federal drug offenses in the Southern District of Texas – a region that reaches from Houston to the border – 93.2 percent pleaded guilty rather than face trial, according to the U.S. government. Just 10 defendants were acquitted at trial, and 82 saw their cases dismissed.

The statistics are similar nationwide.

The latest case in point came this week with the negotiated surrender of a Colombian drug boss Javier Calle Serna, whom the United States accuses of shipping at least 30 tons of cocaine.

While how much time Calle will face is not known publicly, he likely studied other former players, including former Gulf Cartel lord Osiel Cardenas Guillen.

Cardenas once led one of Mexico’s most powerful syndicates and created the Zetas gang. He pleaded guilty in Houston and is to be released by 2025. He’ll be 57.

As the federal prison system has no parole, Castillo has no prospect of ever going home.

“Any reasonable person would look at this and say, ‘God, are you kidding?’ ” said attorney David Bires, who represented Castillo on an unsuccessful appeal. “It is not right.”

Castillo’s elderly mother in Mexico has not been told she’s serving life, and her toddler grandson thinks she’s in the hospital when he comes to visit her in prison.

Castillo is adamant about her innocence.

“Put yourself in my shoes. When you are innocent, you are innocent,” she said. “I don’t say I am perfect. I am not … but I can guarantee you 100 percent that I am innocent of this.”

At the urging of her boyfriend, Martin Ovalle, Castillo became partners with a smooth-talking Mexican resident who said he wanted to set up a Houston-based bus company.

But the buses were light on passengers and shuttled thousands of pounds of cocaine into the United States and millions of dollars back to Mexico. Her lawyers argued she was naive.

Castillo claims she didn’t know about the drug operation, but agents said she should have known something was wrong when quantities of money and drugs were repeatedly found on the coaches.

“After hearing all the evidence as presented from both the government and defense in this case, the jury found her guilty … ,” said Kenneth Magidson, chief prosecutor here.

Former federal prosecutor Mark W. White III said if Castillo had something to share, she might have benefited from a sentence reduction for cooperating.

“Information is a cooperating defendant’s stock in trade,” White said, “and if you don’t have any, … the chances are you won’t get a good deal.”

Castillo has faith that she’ll somehow, some day, go free. Her daily routine doesn’t vary: when she eats breakfast, when she works, when she exercises, and when she brushes her hair, which has gone from red-blond to black and gray. The gray gets respect in prison.

“I will leave here one day with my head held high,” she said. “I don’t feel like a bug or a cockroach. I am a human being, with my feet firmly on the ground.””

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Douglas McNabb – McNabb Associates, P.C.’s
Federal Criminal Defense Attorneys Videos:

Federal Crimes – Be Careful

Federal Crimes – Be Proactive

Federal Crimes – Federal Indictment

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To find additional federal criminal news, please read Federal Criminal Defense Daily.

Douglas McNabb and other members of the U.S. law firm practice and write and/or report extensively on matters involving Federal Criminal Defense, INTERPOL Red Notice Removal, International Extradition Defense, OFAC SDN Sanctions Removal, International Criminal Court Defense, and US Seizure of Non-Resident, Foreign-Owned Assets. Because we have experience dealing with INTERPOL, our firm understands the inter-relationship that INTERPOL’s “Red Notice” brings to this equation.

The author of this blog is Douglas C. McNabb. Please feel free to contact him directly at mcnabb@mcnabbassociates.com or at one of the offices listed above.


Texas federal grand jury indicts Sinaloa cartel leaders

April 25, 2012

CNN on April 24, 2012 released the following:

“By the CNN Wire Staff

(CNN) — A U.S. federal grand jury in Texas has indicted the suspected top leaders of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel.

Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera and Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada Garcia face murder and conspiracy charges connected with drug trafficking, money laundering and organized crime.

The indictment, returned April 11 and unsealed Tuesday, also charges 22 other people who prosecutors allege are connected with the cartel.

It is one of several U.S. federal indictments charging Guzman, who is widely known as Mexico’s most wanted fugitive and has made Forbes magazine’s list of the world’s most powerful people.

“It’s a reminder we’re right behind him, that he can’t live out in the open. We need to get them apprehended,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Tony Franco said Tuesday.

This month’s indictment in western Texas detailed two acts of violence prosecutors said were committed by members of the cartel, including the 2010 kidnapping of an American citizen and two members of his family during a wedding ceremony in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, because of their ties with the rival Juarez cartel.

The target was the groom and a resident of Columbus, New Mexico, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas said in a statement.

Police found the bodies of the groom, his brother and his uncle three days after the wedding in the bed of a pickup truck, according to the indictment.

The indictment also describes the 2009 kidnapping, killing and mutilation of a Texas resident “to answer for the loss of a 670-pound load of marijuana seized by the Border Patrol,” prosecutors said.

Investigators found the Texas resident’s body in Ciudad Juarez, according to the indictment.

“He had been beaten and strangled and his hands had been severed above the wrists and placed on his chest, to serve as a warning to those who might attempt to steal from the cartel,” the indictment says.

Guzman and Zambada have been indicted on drug trafficking and organized crime charges in a number of U.S. federal courts. U.S. officials have offered a $5 million reward for information leading to their capture.

Guzman was arrested in 1993 on homicide and drug charges but escaped in 2001, reportedly by bribing prison guards to smuggle him out in a laundry truck. A Mexican federal investigation led to the arrest of more than 70 prison officials.

Forbes magazine has placed him on its list of the world’s most powerful people, reporting his net worth of $1 billion as of March.

Rumors regularly surge about his whereabouts.

Franco declined to comment on whether there was new information regarding Guzman’s location.

He described Guzman as “a man who has unlimited means, more money than most people in Mexico.”

“It affords him the ability to hide,” Franco added.

The Sinaloa Cartel, named after the Mexican state where the gang was formed, is one of the most powerful drug-trafficking groups in the nation.”

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Douglas McNabb – McNabb Associates, P.C.’s
Federal Criminal Defense Attorneys Videos:

Federal Crimes – Federal Indictment

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To find additional federal criminal news, please read Federal Criminal Defense Daily.

Douglas McNabb and other members of the U.S. law firm practice and write and/or report extensively on matters involving Federal Criminal Defense, INTERPOL Red Notice Removal, International Extradition and OFAC SDN Sanctions Removal.

The author of this blog is Douglas C. McNabb. Please feel free to contact him directly at mcnabb@mcnabbassociates.com or at one of the offices listed above.


Mexican Cartel Kingpin to Plead Guilty in US Federal Court

January 4, 2012

The Associated Press (AP) on January 4, 2012 released the following:

“By ELLIOT SPAGAT
Associated Press

SAN DIEGO (AP) — Mexican drug cartel kingpin Benjamin Arellano Felix will plead guilty to unspecified charges, the U.S. attorney’s office in San Diego said Wednesday.

Spokeswoman Debra Hartman said she could not elaborate in advance of the filing. Arellano Felix is expected in federal court Wednesday afternoon.

Arellano Felix headed a once-mighty cartel that came to power in Tijuana, Mexico, in the late 1980s.

Defense attorney Anthony Colombo did not immediately respond to a phone call from The Associated Press seeking comment.

Arellano Felix was extradited from Mexico in April 2011 to face drug, money-laundering and racketeering charges. He had been under indictment in the U.S. since 2003 and is one of the highest-profile kingpins to face prosecution in the United States.

Arellano Felix was incarcerated in Mexico since his 2002 arrest and was sentenced in 2007 to 22 years in prison on drug trafficking and organized crime charges.

The U.S. indictment says Arellano Felix was the principal organizer and top leader of the Arellano Felix cartel going back to 1986, and that the cartel tortured and killed rivals in the United States and Mexico as it smuggled tons of Mexican marijuana and Colombian cocaine.

The cartel, which was known to dissolve the bodies of its enemies in vats of lye, began to lose influence along California’s border with Mexico after Arellano Felix was arrested in 2002. A month earlier, his brother, Ramon, called the cartel’s top enforcer, died in a shootout with Mexican authorities.”

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To find additional federal criminal news, please read Federal Crimes Watch Daily.

Douglas McNabb and other members of the U.S. law firm practice and write and/or report extensively on matters involving Federal Criminal Defense, INTERPOL Red Notice Removal, International Extradition and OFAC SDN Sanctions Removal.

The author of this blog is Douglas McNabb. Please feel free to contact him directly at mcnabb@mcnabbassociates.com or at one of the offices listed above.


76 Arrested as Officials Break Up Mexico-to-Arizona Drug-Smuggling Ring

November 1, 2011
Guns and Drugs Seized from Mexican Drug Cartel

The New York Times on October 31, 2011 released the following:

“By MARC LACEY

PHOENIX — Law enforcement officials on Monday announced the breakup of a large drug-smuggling ring that used lookouts on hilltops in southern Arizona to move huge quantities of marijuana and other drugs across the Mexican border to users throughout the United States.

Over the last month and a half, federal, state and local officials have arrested 76 people, from organizational bosses to stash-house guards to those who transported the drugs in backpacks and in vehicles, the authorities said. All were linked to the Sinaloa cartel run by Joaquín Guzmán, Mexico’s richest and most wanted outlaw, who goes by the nickname El Chapo, officials said.

Speaking at a news conference on Monday, Arizona officials estimated that the ring had been in operation for at least five years and had generated more than $2 billion in profits by smuggling more than three million pounds of marijuana, 20,000 pounds of cocaine and 10,000 pounds of heroin into the United States. Such large smuggling rings usually use tractor-trailers to get their contraband across, the authorities said, but this operation relied mostly on migrants on foot straining under their loads.

The authorities acknowledged that the huge smuggling ring operated under their noses, in rugged terrain that is difficult to patrol. The drugs would be carried across the border in relatively small quantities and then transported north to a network of stash houses in the Phoenix area. From there, the contraband would be sold to distributors nationwide.

The route was through the most desolate desert areas of southern Arizona, from Yuma to just east of the border community of Sells, including the sprawling Tohono O’odham Indian reservation. Spotters with radios or cellphones were used to point out the presence of law enforcement and divert loads, the authorities said.

The investigation began in June of last year with a traffic stop in Pinal County of a suspect who later provided details of the operation, said Sheriff Paul Babeu. Sheriff Babeu, who is considering a run for Congress, cited the arrests to buttress his argument that the border remains porous, despite the Obama administration’s insistence that it was more secure than ever. About half of those arrested were illegal immigrants and the other half were American citizens or holders of valid visas, officials said.

While calling the arrests a blow to the smugglers, the authorities were cautious in declaring victory.

“I expect there will be a shift,” said Matthew Allen, special agent in charge of Arizona for Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations. “One investigation is not going to put them out of business. We have to continually adapt.”

Last month, the authorities were reminded of how challenging the drug war had become when they arrested a Homeland Security official stationed at the border, charging him with leading the police on a chase through the desert during which he hurled packages of marijuana from his government vehicle.

Last week, a federal grand jury in Tucson handed up an indictment charging a Border Patrol agent with accepting a bribe to let a truck that he believed was smuggling drugs and migrants past a checkpoint in southern Arizona, federal officials said. When the agent asked the driver if he was a United States citizen, the driver responded “buenos dias” and was waved through, officials said.

Mr. Guzman has made buying off the Mexican authorities his trademark, which has frustrated efforts to capture him from the mountain hamlets where he operates. President Felipe Calderón of Mexico, who has been criticized for not catching the country’s No. 1 drug lord, recently said he suspected that Mr. Guzman may be hiding in the United States. American officials said they had no evidence to back up that claim.”

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Douglas McNabb – McNabb Associates, P.C.’s
Federal Criminal Defense Attorneys Videos:

Federal Crimes – Be Careful

Federal Crimes – Be Proactive

Federal Crimes – Federal Indictment

Federal Crimes – Detention Hearing

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To find additional federal criminal news, please read Federal Crimes Watch Daily.

Douglas McNabb and other members of the U.S. law firm practice and write and/or report extensively on matters involving Federal Criminal Defense, INTERPOL Red Notice Removal, International Extradition and OFAC SDN Sanctions Removal.

The author of this blog is Douglas McNabb. Please feel free to contact him directly at mcnabb@mcnabbassociates.com or at one of the offices listed above.


U.S. Widens Role in Mexican Fight

August 26, 2011

The New York Times on August 26, 2011 released the following in print:

“By MARK MAZZETTI and GINGER THOMPSON

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has expanded its role in Mexico’s fight against organized crime by allowing the Mexican police to stage cross-border drug raids from inside the United States, according to senior administration and military officials.

Mexican commandos have discreetly traveled to the United States, assembled at designated areas and dispatched helicopter missions back across the border aimed at suspected drug traffickers. The Drug Enforcement Administration provides logistical support on the American side of the border, officials said, arranging staging areas and sharing intelligence that helps guide Mexico’s decisions about targets and tactics.

Officials said these so-called boomerang operations were intended to evade the surveillance — and corrupting influences — of the criminal organizations that closely monitor the movements of security forces inside Mexico. And they said the efforts were meant to provide settings with tight security for American and Mexican law enforcement officers to collaborate in their pursuit of criminals who operate on both sides of the border.

Although the operations remain rare, they are part of a broadening American campaign aimed at blunting the power of Mexican cartels that have built criminal networks spanning the world and have started a wave of violence in Mexico that has left more than 35,000 people dead.

Many aspects of the campaign remain secret, because of legal and political sensitivities. But in recent months, details have begun to emerge, revealing efforts that would have been unthinkable five years ago. Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderón, who was elected in 2006, has broken with his country’s historic suspicion of the United States and has enlisted Washington’s help in defeating the cartels, a central priority for his government.

American Predator and Global Hawk drones now fly deep over Mexico to capture video of drug production facilities and smuggling routes. Manned American aircraft fly over Mexican targets to eavesdrop on cellphone communications. And the D.E.A. has set up an intelligence outpost — staffed by Central Intelligence Agency operatives and retired American military personnel — on a Mexican military base.

“There has always been a willingness and desire on the part of the United States to play more of a role in Mexico’s efforts,” said Eric L. Olson, an expert on Mexico at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “But there have been some groundbreaking developments on the Mexican side where we’re seeing officials who are willing to take some risks, even political risks, by working closely with the United States to carry out very sensitive missions.”

Still, the cooperation remains a source of political tensions, especially in Mexico where the political classes have been leery of the United States dating from the Mexican-American War of 1846. Recent disclosures about the expanding United States’ role in the country’s main national security efforts have set off a storm of angry assertions that Mr. Calderón has put his own political interests ahead of Mexican sovereignty. Mr. Calderón’s political party faces an election next year that is viewed in part as a referendum on his decision to roll out this campaign against drug traffickers.

Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns walked into that storm during a visit to Mexico this month and strongly defended the partnership the two governments had developed.

“I’ll simply repeat that there are clear limits to our role,” Mr. Burns said. “Our role is not to conduct operations. It is not to engage in law enforcement activities. That is the role of the Mexican authorities. And that’s the way it should be.”

Officials said Mexico and the United States began discussing the possibility of cross-border missions two years ago, when Mexico’s crime wave hit the important industrial corridor between Monterrey and Nuevo Laredo. To avoid being detected, the Mexican police traveled to the United States in plain clothes on commercial flights, two military officials said. Later the officers were transported back to Mexico on Mexican aircraft, which dropped the agents at or near their targets.

“The cartels don’t expect Mexican police coming from the U.S.,” said one senior military official. None of the officials interviewed about the boomerang operations would speak publicly about them, and refused to provide details about where they were conducted or what criminal organizations had been singled out.

They said that the operations had been carried out only a couple of times in the last 18 months, and that they had not resulted in any significant arrests.

The officials insisted that the Pentagon is not involved in the cross-border operations, and that no Americans take part in drug raids on Mexican territory.

“These are not joint operations,” said one senior administration official. “They are self-contained Mexican operations where staging areas were provided by the United States.”

Former American law enforcement officials who were once posted in Mexico described the boomerang operations as a new take on an old strategy that was briefly used in the late 1990s, when the D.E.A. helped Mexico crack down on the Tijuana Cartel.

To avoid the risks of the cartel being tipped off to police movements by lookouts or police officials themselves, the former officers said, the D.E.A. arranged for specially vetted Mexican police to stage operations out of Camp Pendleton in San Diego. The Mexican officers were not given the names of the targets of their operations until they were securely sequestered on the base. And they were not given the logistical details of the mission until shortly before it was under way.

“They were a kind of rapid-reaction force,” said one former senior D.E.A. official. “It was an effective strategy at the time.”

Another former D.E.A. official said that the older operations resulted in the arrests of a handful of midlevel cartel leaders. But, he said, it was ended in 2000 when cartel leaders struck back by kidnapping, torturing and killing a counternarcotics official in the Mexican attorney general’s office, along with two fellow drug agents.

In recent months, Mexico agreed to post a team of D.E.A. agents, C.I.A. operatives and retired American military officials on a Mexican military base to help conduct intelligence operations, bolstering the work of a similar “fusion cell” already in Mexico City.

Meanwhile the Pentagon is steadily overhauling the parts of the military responsible for the drug fight, paying particular attention to some lessons of nearly a decade of counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. At Northern Command — the military’s Colorado Springs headquarters responsible for North American operations — several top officers with years of experience in fighting Al Qaeda and affiliated groups are poring over intelligence about Mexican drug networks.

One officer said, “The military is trying to take what it did in Afghanistan and do the same in Mexico.”

That’s exactly what some Mexicans are afraid of, said a Mexican political scientist, Denise Dresser, who is an expert on that country’s relations with the United States.

“I’m not necessarily opposed to greater American involvement,” Ms. Dresser said. “But if that’s the way the Mexican government wants to go, it needs to come clean about it. Just look at what we learned from Iraq. Secrecy led to malfeasance. It led to corrupt contracting. It led to torture. It led to instability. And who knows when those problems will be resolved.””

To find additional federal criminal news, please read Federal Crimes Watch Daily.

Douglas McNabb and other members of the U.S. law firm practice and write extensively on matters involving Federal Criminal Defense, INTERPOL Red Notice Removal, International Extradition and OFAC SDN List Removal.

The author of this blog is Douglas McNabb. Please feel free to contact him directly at mcnabb@mcnabbassociates.com or at one of the offices listed above.

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