EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) – A popular Mexican food restaurant in Central El Paso, a parking lot outside of a busy shopping center and a gas station in Horizon are some of the spots Sinaloa cartel members would move drugs in tool boxes or makeshift containers.
Drug traffickers and their associates would move marijuana and cocaine through the city, and money from sales across the United States often found its way back to the Sinaloa cartel in Juárez. Traffickers would move the drugs to Chicago, St. Louis, Atlanta and Philadelphia, according to a witness during a testimony in federal court on Tuesday.
The testimony came as Arturo Shows Urquidi and Mario Alberto Iglesias Villegas, who are cartel members, are on trial this week in U.S. federal court in El Paso. The two are accused of being involved in the Sinaloa cartels operations Juárez in connection to murders, kidnappings, and drug trafficking.
The trials are part of a large indictment by a federal grand jury that included Sinaloa cartel leaders Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and Ismael “Mayo” Zambada Garcia. On April 24, 2012, the leaders and 22 other members of the cartel were charged with criminal activities ranging from trafficking drugs to conspiracy to kill in a foreign country.
On Tuesday, a witness gave an inside account of trafficking operations in El Paso as the cartel battled the Juárez cartel for control of the territory. His accounts took place in 2009 when the city saw some of the most intense exchanges of violence.
At the helm of the Sinaloa cartel’s operations in Juárez was Antonio Marrufo, who would orchestrate both armed operations and trafficking across the bridges through his recruited henchmen. He arrived in Juárez sometime in 2005, and had already developed a reputation as one Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s top enforcers.
The witness told jurors he and a man named Edgar Galvan, would assist the Sinaloa cartel in trafficking drugs and weapons into the heart of the United States. The two partied and went to nightclubs in Juárez and El Paso indulging in drugs when they met Marrufo.
Like other witnesses in the case, he was looking for fewer years on his sentence. Some have voiced concern about returning to Mexico.
“I would like to get a benefit,” he said. “To request the judge to allow me to stay in the United States.”
A few years later, the witness and Galvan would be getting a view of the safe houses operated by the cartel in Juárez. One was in the Cuatro Siglos neighborhood, which is just a stone’s throw away from the U.S. Mexico border and Ysleta International Bridge.
The safe houses often had cocaine and the weapons of cartel members inside the buildings. Often, the safe houses would be nice properties with high-end amenities and pools, according to testimonies provided by several witnesses during the trial.
One of Tuesday’s witnesses and a man identified as Martin Avila, would move drugs in El Paso under Marrufo’s orders, the witness said. He remembers guarding Avila down McRae after receiving a shipment at a shopping center, he told the jury.
Normally, the two would be outside of the parking lot at a popular Mexican restaurant near Basset Center, the witness said. The drugs would be hidden in makeshift boxes and tool boxes, he added. The two would take the drugs to Avila’s apartment a few miles away.
Avila was one of the drivers who would help move drugs around the city to safe houses, the witness said.
And, one afternoon, while following the drivers, one of them was intercepted by police after a pick-up. The witness said they may have told law enforcement about the trade.
The witness said he immediately told Galvan and Marrufo and awaited orders to respond.
Several agents with the DEA and Homeland Security Investigations told jurors law enforcement would intercept drug trafficking with the help of protected informants with relationships in the drug trade.
One individual cooperating with the DEA would notify agents that he was given 12 kilograms of cocaine, in 10 bundles, to traffic to Atlanta. And, during the process the Atlanta office would come up with a plan to ensure the informant had a believable story of what happened with the drugs.
The DEA agent said the agency would work with informants for them to keep their relationship with the cartel so they could continue feeding information but also not break laws.
In the end, the agency removed the cocaine from nine of the bundles, and replaced them with filler including coffee paper and wood. And, one real bundle was allowed to be released into the market, the agent added.
The operation led to the arrest of a recipient in Atlanta, the agent added.
But it did not always work out for informants. Another agent shared an incident where a man named Edgar Ariel Avalos had been caught trying to traffic 1,600 kilos of marijuana inside a U-Haul with condensed milk.
He agreed to help agents track Maruffo in Juárez. He was given a special phone that allowed U.S. agents to keep track of his whereabouts so they could capture him.
But prosecutors showed a picture of Avalos murdered at a car wash on Valentin Fuentes street in Juárez. He’d been shot several times.