On September 20, an informant told the King County Sheriff's Office that he recently befriended a Tijuana-based drug dealer with ties to Mexico's powerful Sinaloa Cartel. The cartel affiliate went by the name Jesse, according to documents filed September 29 in Western Washington federal court, and he was in the business of smuggling carloads of meth across the border, including one 20-pound shipment that had recently made its way to West Seattle.
El Chapo, head of the Sinaloa Cartel.
Four days after the informant tipped off the Sheriffs about his new acquaintance, a deputy went undercover as "Big Mike" and called Jesse's cell phone. The 20-pound shipment in West Seattle had already been moved, Jesse said, but they could still do business because he had people who worked for him in both Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia. Jesse and the deputy agreed that six pounds of meth at $14,500 each (for a grand total of $87,000) was a fair price.
On September 27, Jesse's "cousin" Miguel Angel Cisneros called the undercover deputy he knew as "Big Mike" and they planned to meet in a Safeway parking lot in Burien. Cisneros arrived in the passenger seat of a red Honda Accord with another man, identified in court documents as Juan Carlos Florez-Mendoza, behind the wheel. The men were nervous because they thought a cop had followed them into the lot. Hearing this, the undercover cop suggested they head to a nearby storage locker -- but only after he was allowed to see the drugs. Cisneros and Florez-Mendoza reluctantly agreed, and popped the trunk to reveal a large plastic grocery bag filled with several shrink-wrapped packages.
Law-enforcement agents swarmed the Honda shortly after it pulled into the storage facility in nearby White Center. Cisneros spilled his guts during the ensuing interrogation. He told investigators that Florez-Mendoza had spent time in Mexican prison and claimed to be a member of the La Familia cartel. He explained how they picked up the meth -- which totaled more than five pounds, according to court documents -- at an apartment complex in Kent. And he also said that for the past two months he had been collecting "a big wad of cash" from another man in Southcenter and delivering it to Florez-Mendoza in eastern Washington.
Both Cisneros and Flores-Mendoza are now charged with possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute. Their arrests were part "Operation Center of Attention," a recent sweep of the White Center area by the ATF's violent gang task force. More than 50 other people were arrested during the operation, and authorities seized a total of 51 pounds of meth, along with cocaine, crack, and weapons.
Cheryl Bishop, the acting group supervisor for the violent gang task force, says Mexican drug-cartel operatives were not the focus of the White Center operation, but "it just so happens that a number of individuals we came across" had cartel connections.
The fact that Mexican cartels have a foothold in Seattle shouldn't come as a surprise. The Sinaloa Cartel is "widely regarded as the largest and most powerful drug trafficking organization in the Western Hemisphere," according to the analysts at InSight Crime, and the mobsters have forged alliances with other cartels like La Familia -- known until recently for its dominance of the Mexican meth trade in the state of Michoacán -- and American street gangs.
According to the 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment published this week by the FBI, the Sinaloa cartel has ties to Vatos Locos, the Mara Salvatrucha, and various Sureño factions, all of which have a presence in King County. The FBI writes that "U.S. gangs, which traditionally served as the primary organized retail or mid-level distributor of drugs in most major U.S. cities, are now purchasing drugs directly from the cartels, thereby eliminating the mid-level wholesale dealer."
Bishop, however, says cartel ties only turned up in cases where relatively significant quantities of drugs were involved, such as the one involving Cisneros and Florez-Mendoza. (By way of comparison, Mexican authorities confiscated 3.4 tons of meth in August that reportedly belonged to the Sinaloa Cartel.)
"There were indications that on our larger seizures the supply route was related to Mexican cartels," Bishop says. "We can't say all, but some individuals that were identified, especially those connected with the larger seizures, we had strong indicators that there were Mexican cartel connections and influence."