By Matthew B. Cox and Pierre Rausini
THE TWENTY-TWO-YEAR-OLD slipped his U.S. Passport to the female agent at the Orlando International Airport Customs desk. From behind the counter the stern woman carefully compared the data on the screen before her to Jacob Diaz’s travel documents. Her eyes bounced between the handsome baby faced young college student—a Mexican-American with the uncharacteristic features of an Anglo—returning from Acapulco and the monitor.
When the agent inquired if the young man had anything to declare, Diaz politely replied, “No ma’am.” His stomach tightened, however, he forced himself to smile, revealing a slight dimple on his upper left cheek. He deliberately adjusted the strap of the book-bag slung over his shoulder and added, “Just some text books.”
Unimpressed, she continued to observe his body language. “Where do you go to school?”
Jacob Diaz was, in fact, a student at the University of Central Florida, however, he was also a drug trafficker. Diaz was part of the Beltran-Leyva Organization’s American-based distribution network, one of the principal factions of the Sinaloa Cartel which, at its peak (between 2003 and 2010) was the largest, most powerful drug trafficking syndicate to have ever existed. The Beltran-Leyva Organization was based in Sinaloa and led by five brothers, one of whom, Arturo Beltran-Leyva, was considered one of the most powerful drug lords in Mexico.
The Sinaloa Cartel controlled two thousand miles of American-border stretching from San Diego through El Paso, some seventeen ports of entry falling within its sphere of influence. At that moment, the Sinaloa Cartel was embroiled in a full-blown narco war against the Gulf Cartel for control of the Texas stretch of the American-border.
Weeks earlier, while in Acapulco, Diaz placed an order for fifty kilograms of cocaine. During the next two weeks a large shipment of product was transported from Acapulco to Mexico City; from there the cocaine was moved upcountry to the border-town of Reynosa. There the product was delivered to members of Los Zetas—the organization in control of the Reynosa Plaza.
Within hours, the shipment was dispatched to a nondescript warehouse where Diaz’s load was concealed in one of a fleet of vehicles—all of which had been outfitted with hidden compartments.
Days later—during the shift of a crooked U.S. Border patrol agent—Diaz’s fifty kilos passed through the border. Once on American soil, the product was delivered to a driver in Brownsville, Texas, who then transported the cocaine to Houston. There, Diaz’s driver took possession of the vehicle. At that moment the driver was traversing the perilous U.S. Interstate system—avoiding check points and highway patrols—from Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, where ultimately, he would arrive in Florida. Once outside of Orlando, in the Shadow of Disney World, Diaz had to be there to meet him.
After a long uncomfortable gaze, the earnest female customs agent gave Diaz a curt nod of approval, handed him his passport and said, “Welcome back to the U.S., Mr. Diaz.”
Minutes later Jacob stepped through the airport’s automatic doors into the scorching Florida heat holding his bags.
He rendezvoused with the driver of the fifty kilos; inside of a week, he’d delivered the product to various distributors and picked up several hundred thousand dollars in outstanding debts. Then, Diaz arrived back at the airport for a return flight to Mexico.
The modern-day Sinaloa Cartel—known internally as El Federación (the “Federation”)—was born out of a strategic alliance entered into by five kingpins, one of whom was Arturo Beltran-Leyva. The Federation, formed during a meeting in 2002 in Monterrey attended by Beltran-Leyva, Joaquin (“El Chapo”) Guzman and three other drug lords, was created out of necessity. Guzman had recently escaped from a maximum security prison with the assistance of his cousin, Arturo Beltran-Leyva whom, like Guzman, had grown-up dirt-poor in Badiraguato, Sinaloa. The five kingpins met as a Counsel of War to discuss a problem they all shared: the rise of the Gulf Cartel.
JACOB DIAZ WAS BORN ON VALENTINE’S Day 1986 in Reading, Pennsylvania. His mother told her son his father was in prison for murder—a robbery that went wrong—however, Diaz’s uncle confessed to his nephew that his father was never incarcerated. In fact, Diaz’s father was living in Pennsylvania and asked about his son constantly. Regardless, at our first interview Diaz tells me. “I could care less about meeting him.” Based on the things he’d heard growing up, his father is “an alcoholic low life that abandoned me.”
When Diaz was five, his mother packed up him and his younger brother, his older brother, and his older sister; and relocated the family to Ocala, in central Florida.
The family moved in with Diaz’s maternal uncle who lived in a singlewide trailer located in a trailer park known as “Little Mexico.” “Extreme poverty, is how I’d describe it,” he admits. The park was a massive grid of manufactured housing. “It was row after row of single-and-doublewide trailers filled with undocumented laborers, prostitutes, and drug dealers; it was no place to raise kids.”
DIAZ CLIMBED THROUGH THE WINDOW of the teachers’ lounge of Oak Crest Elementary shortly after ten p.m.—he was thirteen years old. The school had held a fundraiser earlier in the day and Diaz along with two of his friends were certain the money was still on the premises. Since the age of nine Diaz had been shoplifting and breaking into houses. He’d been on house arrest and spent three days in a program for juvenile offenders—Project Challenge.
While Jacob and his friends were rifling through drawers and closets, Ocala police officers entered the school. Minutes later Diaz exited the teachers’ lounge to search the principle’s office and walked face first into an officer and his service revolver.
Diaz was court ordered to serve six months at the Silver River Marina Institution—a state run juvenile offender program. “They sent me home after four months,” says Diaz. “The teachers’ said I didn’t belong there.” He’d been committing petty crimes for years, however, the majority of his criminal behavior Jacob confesses “was to buy clothes and food. It’s not like I was a bad kid, I was just trying to survive.”
Shortly after returning from “the juvie-program,” Diaz’s mother neglected to come home from work one evening—she’d disappeared for a day or two before, so initially he wasn’t concerned. Diaz continued to go to school and do his homework.
Then—roughly two weeks later as the food was running out—the “rent lady” showed up and asked to see his mother. When Diaz explained that she hadn’t been home in weeks, the property manager told him if his mother wasn’t back within twenty-four hours she was calling child protective services.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Diaz admits as his eyes tear up. “She abandoned me.” An uncomfortable silence fills the air between us. He eventually wipes his eyes and continues, “I packed up some clothes and went to my best friend Mike Brasseal’s house.” Brasseal lived with his sister, Stacy Yarbrough, in a singlewide in Little Mexico. She agreed to take in Diaz for a few weeks, which turned into months, which stretched into over a year.
BY THE DAWN OF THE CENTURY, the Gulf Cartel had grown to become the most powerful drug trafficking syndicate in the world. Based in the city of Matamoros in the Gulf state of Tamaulipas directly across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, the organization smuggled twenty tons of cocaine into the United States every month.
Osiel Cardenas had taken over the leadership of the legendary cartel after orchestrating the murder of its leader, Angel Gomez Herrera, in July 1999. Cardenas was part of the new generation of Mexican drug traffickers, young men who weren’t only bold and technologically savvy, but also vicious and willing to kill at the slightest provocation.
The key to Cardenas’ ascendancy was his relationship with Lieutenant Arturo Guzman-Decena, an officer in the Mexican Airborne Special Forces Group (“GAFE”). Together, Cardenas and Guzman-Decena formed Los Zetas, a paramilitary group of thirty-one former Mexican Army Special Forces soldiers whom Cardenas had persuaded to defect from the military. They took the name Los Zetas—The Z’s—from the radio call sign of the GAFE. To ensure their anonymity, the Zetas were only identified by their call sign designations. Guzman-Decena was Z-1; with the others following in order of rank, Z-2, Z-3, Z-4 and so on.
Originally these soldiers had been groomed by the Mexican military to combat drug traffickers. They were trained by Israeli Defense Forces at the infamous School of the Americas in Georgia and by American Special Forces at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. In a diabolical twist, Cardenas assigned them the responsibility of securing drug trafficking routes, collections, and executions—often carried out with unspeakable savagery. The Zetas were armed with military grade assault rifles to 50mm machine guns, grenade launchers, and ground-to-air missiles. Led by Z-1, the Zetas were ruthless.
Because Cardenas offered salaries considerably higher than those paid by the Mexican government, more Special Operations troops soon defected and joined. Training camps near the border of Texas were established, and experts from Guatemala’s counter-insurgency Special Forces were brought in to run them.
Now three hundred strong, the Gulf Cartel’s paramilitary wing was the most powerful group of enforcers in the history of organized crime. Once Cardenas became the undisputed leader in 2000, he then set his sights on the biggest prize of all—the plazas controlled by the Sinaloa Cartel, led by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
BOBBY—A FRIEND OF STACY’S—was a white guy from Alabama. Sometime in 2001 he was busted by the DEA for running a grow house. Bobby’s cousin, Vicki, approached Stacy shortly after his arrest with twenty pounds of hydroponic marijuana. “Bobby needs money for an attorney,” she said. “He needs help.”The two girls asked Brasseal and Diaz if they’d sell the “hydro.” Diaz was fifteen years old and he’d been selling low grade Mexican “dirt weed on and off for the last year,” he admits. “But this was different; this was three thousand [dollars] a pound, high grade kush.”
Bobby was willing to “front them” the marijuana on consignment for $1,000 per pound—well below the going price. The two teens broke the “kush” down into ounces and started selling to friends, and friends of friends. They priced the weed at $2,000 per pound.
“It took us about a month to get rid of it,” recalls Diaz. “We should’ve made about twenty thousand [dollars], but we smoked a bunch of it and Mike’s (Brasseal) sister made us reimburse her for food and rent, so by the end of the month we ended up splitting fifteen grand.”
Diaz had just turned sixteen when Brasseal and his sister got into a huge argument; Stacy kicked her brother and Diaz out of the trailer. Brasseal moved to Alabama to live with family. Diaz couch-surfed for a few months; eventually his money ran out and he didn’t have a place to stay.
“Out of desperation I turned myself in to the Department of Children and Families.” They placed Diaz in a group home run by an older African-American woman. There were half a dozen other foster kids in the home; according to Diaz “some of them were really messed up. One kid had seen his mother get murdered in front of him.”
THE TEXAS STATE TROOPER was bored. For the second day in a row he’d been detailed to ride alongside an oversized load being transported on State Highway 281. Beside him a Freightliner rolled slowly, pulling a trailer hauling three 75 feet long high-frequency transmission poles from McAllen, Texas to Houston. This was the third transport in two days complete with chase cars, front and rear, and white utility truck following closely behind the big-rig’s extended-trailer with bright yellow flags announcing “OVERSIZED LOAD” and “PROCEED WITH CAUTION.” For a trooper that would have rather spent his shift chasing drug smugglers, it was a shit detail.
Unbeknownst to the Department of Transportation and the trooper, concealed within the concrete poles’ bowels was a metric ton of cocaine.
In the Mexican state of Tamaulipas alone, the Gulf Cartel controlled the lucrative Matamoros, Reynosa, and Nuevo Laredo plazas, key border crossing points which served as prime drug smuggling routes between the United States and Mexico. A “plaza” is a geographical area that is controlled by a cartel cell that is responsible for overseeing the transportation of narcotics in that specific region. The bulk of that product was destined for Houston, a major trans-shipping and distribution point which served as the Gulf Cartel’s American-base of operations. The organizations that transported the cartel’s cocaine overland from the Rio Grande Valley to Houston had to run a seven-hour gauntlet through some of the most heavily patrolled highways in the nation.
That’s where men like Vicente Sanchez Guerrero took over. Sanchez Guerrero was a thirty-something-year-old Mexican-American who owned a number of businesses, one of which was a small trucking company based in McAllen.
Sanchez Guerrero was a key figure in the Rio Grande Valley. His drug ring was responsible for transporting multi-ton shipments of cocaine from McAllen and Brownsville to Houston. He would often utilize ingenious methods to accomplish his missions, one of which involved transporting the Gulf Cartel’s product utilizing the services of unwitting Texas State Troopers to insure safe delivery.
Sanchez Guerrero, like Osiel Cardenas, was part of a generational shift taking place in northeastern Mexico with younger narcos taking over control of the drug business. Unlike the older generation, men who built the Mexican drug trade and strived to keep a low profile, Sanchez Guerrero was flashy—quick to show off his $60,000 Rolex and luxury vehicles—and well-connected. Not only did he socialize with Cardenas at exclusive nightclubs in Matamoros; his wife’s brother was one of the founding members of Los Zetas.
DIAZ PULLED THE FORD F-150 onto the driveway of an isolated rental home a smidgen outside of Ocala’s city limits. His passenger, Olegario Hernandez, a slender, tan, illegal-Mexican-national in his mid-thirties, liked the location. He liked the solitude. The privacy.
Shortly after graduating in May 2004, Diaz had been approached by a distant cousin of Ole’s—a guy that lived in Diaz’s former-neighborhood—regarding a job. It paid decent money, so he’d decided to take the job driving Ole around. He didn’t speak English and Diaz didn’t know Spanish, but he agreed to learn—by the end of the summer the nineteen-year-old had a passing knowledge of the language.
He was only vaguely aware of the illegality of what Ole was involved in. As the months passed, and Diaz’s Spanish improved, he realized that Ole was renting inexpensive houses for the purpose of storing cocaine and cash. Later, as the drugs arrived, Diaz pieced together that Ole was somehow associated with the Gulf Cartel.
The property manager showed up minutes after they’d arrived. Diaz explained the lease to Ole, and he signed. They swapped the keys to the “stash house” for cash, and Ole was in business.
BY 2005, THE GULF CARTEL’S fortunes had taken a turn. Osiel Cardenas, the cartel’s embattled leader, was sitting in a prison cell. Specifically, because he’d underestimated Chapo Guzman. Compounding Cardenas’ problem, he had overestimated the loyalty of Los Zetas, whose alliance with the Gulf began to sour, following his arrest.
Under Guzman’s leadership, the Sinaloa Federation struck back at the Gulf and its allies utilizing a two-pronged strategy. Guzman handled the treachery and Arturo Beltran-Leyva handled the violence. Specifically, Guzman, through his lawyer, Humberto Loya-Castro, began supplying the DEA with strategic information on his rivals—deftly manipulating American and Mexican law enforcement into wiping out the leadership of the Federations enemies.
Shortly after the Federation was formed, Mexican Federal Police made its move to arrest Ramon Arellano-Felix, the second-in-command of the Tijuana Cartel, during a visit to the Sinaloa resort town of Mazatlan. While attempting to evade capture, he was gunned down by federales. Less than a month later, Ramon’s brother, Benjamin Arellano-Felix, the leader of the Tijuana Cartel, was arrested by the Mexican military. Nearly one year later, in March 2003, Osiel Cardenas was captured in the city of Matamoros after a shoot-out between the Mexican military and Gulf Cartel gunman.
By supplying the DEA with actionable intelligence, Guzman had orchestrated the capture or killing of the Federation’s principle rivals, crippling the leadership of the Gulf and Tijuana cartels without his men ever firing a shot.
Arturo Beltran-Leyva, on the other hand, handled the Sinaloa Federation’s military strategy, organizing powerful groups of assassins who knocked off dozens of lower-level operatives from rival cartels. Then, in 2004, Arturo orchestrated the killing of Rodolfo Carrillo-Fuentes, the operational head of the Juarez Cartel, by having him gunned down while shopping at an upscale mall in Culiacan, Sinaloa.
Also, by 2005, Arturo had established a heavily-armed, well-trained enforcement group called Los Negros whom, under the leadership of Edgar Valdez-Villarreal (“La Barbie”), engaged the Gulf Cartel in territorial disputes in the cities of Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa. While the Beltran-Leyva faction fought the Zetas for control of the Gulf Cartel’s plazas in northeastern Mexico, the seeds of a much more different relationship were being planted between these groups.
“MOST OF THE TIME,” says Diaz, “Ole and I just hung out. He comprehended some English, so we’d go to movies, watch TV, go out to eat.” According to Diaz, Ole saw him as a son or a younger brother. “He bought me clothes, gave me money.” When Diaz’s foster care ran out he moved into Ole’s rental—a one bedroom, one bath. “It was in the middle of nowhere, on a farm.” Diaz laughs. “I slept on the futon, but it was better than the group home.”
ALONG THE MEXICAN-AMERICAN BORDER, agents were being recruited by the cartels. Some were lured by money, others by sexual favors and—in at least one instance—an ill-advised romance.
The city of Reynosa, located in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, lies across the Rio Grande from McAllen, Texas. The Reynosa-McAllen area served as one of the Gulf Cartel’s key drug smuggling corridors. Given its strategic importance, the Zetas were assigned responsibility for administering and protecting the Reynosa plaza.
As a leader of Los Zetas, Efrain Teodoro Torres—known by his call sign Z-14—was one of the men responsible for overseeing the Gulf Cartel’s Reynosa operation. Torres was one of the original fourteen Special Forces soldiers who deserted the military to form the Zetas. Although not in overall command, Torres played a key role in the Reynosa operation. Not only did Torres maintain a business relationship with Vicente Guerrero’s drug ring, he was the Zeta that compromised a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent who had fallen in love with the handsome former-Special Forces officer turned successful businessman.
Thereafter, the Zetas‘ spotters being directing their drivers to the border-crossing lanes where Torres’ girlfriend would wave the trucks through. Thus allowing tons of cocaine to enter into the United States without any risk of detection.
DESPITE DIAZ’S WILLINGNESS to get deeper involved in Ole’s distribution, he refused. Ole let the teen translate for him, and on one occasion he asked Diaz to help him count out $100,000 in cash. Other than that, however, Ole didn’t want him involved. Instead, Diaz enrolled in the College of Central Florida and eventually transferred to the University of Central Florida. Ole brought in two of his cousins from Texas. “Losers,” announces Diaz. “They didn’t have a brain between them; we never got along.”
Over the next six months they acted as drivers and translators for Ole, while Diaz attended classes. Although only peripherally involved, he began paying attention to the mechanics of Ole’s network.
Fifty to sixty kilos of cocaine would arrive from Houston, Texas, every week to two weeks. The product would be stored at one of the stash houses and distributed to various drug traffickers in central Florida throughout the weeks. The proceeds would then be collected and transported back to Texas.
Diaz watched as Ole’s operation—consisting of himself and two worthless twenty-somethings—generated over $2 million in cash proceeds for the Gulf Cartel every month. The eighteen-year-old couldn’t help but wonder, If an average sized city like Orlando could sustain at least one Ole—probably more—how many could Atlanta or Houston sustain?
For the first time, Diaz began to grasp the magnitude.
THREE TONS OF COCAINE were delivered to a warehouse in Reynosa operated by the Zetas. Over the course of several days multiple Ford duallys were disassembled and three hundred kilos of product was packed into their wheel-wells and doorframes.
The handsome former-Mexican military officer, Z-14, called his girlfriend, a naive U.S. Customs and Boarder Protection agent working the Hidalgo Texas Port of Entry. Z-14 had been sleeping with the agent for several months, thereby compromising her effectiveness as an agent. They spoke briefly and she indicated it was possible she’d be working the lanes during her shift that day.
One thousand yards inside the Mexican border a skinny boy stood atop the flat-tar-roof of a ramshackle house holding a pair of military grade binoculars. The young spotter watched as the crooked-female-border agent walked across several lanes of traffic, stopping at lane two. She looked south and ran both of her hands through her hair.
The boy recognized the signal and spoke into his headset. “Lane two,” he informed the driver of the first dually to attempt the border crossing. “Lane two, now. Go! Go! Go!”
The vehicle slowly crossed over the yellow lines separating several lanes of traffic, eventually arrived in lane two. Minutes later, the female agent gave the truck a cursory inspection, then waved it through the port of entry. It was the first of several duallys she’d wave through—out of a sea of 20,000 vehicles—that would pass into Texas over the Hidalgo border that day.
Once the duallys were safely on American soil the drivers delivered them to Guerrero’s ranch near McAllen. He then transported the kilos to Houston for distribution.
DAYS AFTER THE SPRING 2005 semester ended, the DEA raided several of Ole’s associates’ houses—several of whom were arrested and four kilos of the cartel’s product was seized. It wasn’t safe for Ole in the U.S. He needed to return to Mexico.
Diaz drove him to Laredo, Texas, and crossed into Mexico through the Nuevo Laredo border crossing. Then, they shot down to Altamirano, Tierra Caliente, in the state of Guarico; it’s a small dirt road town made up of small manufacturing plants and warehouses.
Ole introduced Diaz to his sister, brother-in-law, and his nieces and nephews, as his hijo (son). In turn Diaz started calling Ole his tio (uncle). Ole let everyone know that Diaz was familia (family.)
“Everyone loved Ole,” says Diaz. “He was a successful narco trafficker—a frowned upon occupation in Mexico, but tolerated—and he was quickly making a name for himself. He was a big fish in a small town.”
THE LARGE YELLOW SCHOOL BUS—a Blue Bird GMC CV200—idled outside an elementary school in Corpus Christy, Texas. It was eight a.m. on a weekday in late Spring and the children—a group of special needs students—excitedly boarded the bus for a fieldtrip to the Houston Zoo.
The driver, a chunky Mexican sporting a gold tooth, smiled and greeted the kids as well as the chaperones. Patiently he answered their questions and they were off to the zoo. Typically the driver would have never tolerated a busload of screaming children, however, his employer—Vicente Guerrero—paid very well.
Unbeknownst to the passengers, the night before, the busses’ carriage had been raised and the undercarriage loaded with over eight hundred kilos of cocaine.
Once the kids had been dropped off at the zoo, the driver drove the bus to a commercial vehicle auto-body service and repair station. There, Alfredeo Rios—a Houston-based distributor—had the product removed from the belly of the Blue Bird. The kilos were then placed in secret compartments within half a dozen vehicles which were placed on a car-hauler bound for Atlanta, Georgia.
Just before three p.m., the driver arrived back at the zoo to pickup the special needs kids and their chaperones. With their tummies stuffed with cotton-candy and the strings to their balloons clinched in their hands, they climbed onto the bus for the ride back to the school. None the wiser.
One week later, drivers in Atlanta were assigned a vehicle and they went about delivering the cocaine to distributors throughout the southeastern United States.
DIAZ’S CELL RANG as he tossed his text books into the back of his Jeep Cherokee. Central Florida’s 2006 summer semester began within days. Diaz had been in the U.S. for nearly a year—attending classes—while waiting for Ole to feel comfortable enough to cross the border.
“I’m at the house,” said Ole. Diaz was taken aback; he had no idea Ole had re-entered the country.
“You’re in Ocala?”
He ignored the question. “We have work to do.”
Over the next week Diaz and Ole rented two stash-houses, a week later vehicles began arriving with roughly fifty to sixty kilos of cocaine every two weeks.
The product was handed off to a single associate on consignment—$29,000 per kilo—anywhere between ten to fifteen kilos at a time. He then distributed the product to dealers throughout central Florida.
On average, each kilo represented a profit of $4,000 to $5,000. Diaz was twenty years old and “I was making between twenty-five thousand to thirty thousand [dollars] a month.”
After four months, the cars stopped coming.
ON SEPTEMBER 5, 2006, a federal grand jury in Texas indicted Vicente Guerrero for conspiracy to import and distribute several tons of cocaine. Nine days later, he was arrested by Custom agents as he entered the United States—shortly thereafter, Guerrero learned that Rios had been arrested months earlier and had secretly been cooperating with law enforcement.
Between the arrest of Cardenas and Guerrero the Gulf Cartel’s ability to supply its distribution network was crippled.
THE BELTRAN-LEYVA ORGANIZATION was one of the principle factions of the Sinaloa Cartel. The faction oversaw the Federation’s affairs in Mexico City along with the Mexican state of Sonora and Guerrero, which included, among other plazas, the city of Acapulco (Guerrero) and its strategically significant seaport.
“I FLEW INTO MEXICO CITY in December 2006,” Diaz tells me. Ole’s contact with Vicente Guerrero’s Organization in Houston had disappeared—whether he’d been arrested or killed, Diaz couldn’t say. Regardless, they needed product and Ole, unlike Diaz, couldn’t easily travel across the border to meet with the cartel. “This is when I started flying back and forth between Acapulco and Houston and Orlando. This is when I seriously got into trafficking.”
Diaz took a bus from Benito Juarez International Airport in Mexico City to Cuernavaca, where the young narco met with Ole’s cousin at the Marriott Hotel—he’d arranged a meeting with a member of the Beltran-Leyva Organization in Cuernavaca, an affluent enclave located an hour south of Mexico City. There, Ole’s cousin introduced him to Rafael Aviles. “Super outgoing surfer-type.” Aviles was a lean shaggy-haired Central American in his thirties. “Very hip guy.”
He didn’t appear to be the type of individual that would be involved in drug trafficking. According to Diaz, Aviles strolled into the meeting in flip-flops and said, “You need coca, I get you coca.” The conversation was short. There was no haggling over the price or delivery schedules. It was $4,000 per kilo in Acapulco, Mexico, or $23,000 in McAllen, Texas.
Understand that the source of the various cartels’ cocaine originates from the fields in the Andes Mountains and the jungle labs of Colombia. The product is then transported to Venezuela; there, it’s distributed in multi-ton loads to various Mexican drug cartels. Back in the mid-2000s, a kilogram of cocaine would cost $2,000 in Venezuela, with a minimum purchase of 1,800 kilos. Each time the product was moved it incurs additional costs. In Acapulco, that same kilo cost roughly $4,000. The closer the cocaine got to the border the more it cost. Once the product got into the United States it had increased ten fold.
“I need the contact number,” Diaz informed him, “and a password.” The code was simple. Once back in Florida, Diaz simply had to call the assigned number and talk about arranging a trip to Disney World or a fishing trip, and the other party would know to meet his driver in McAllen. The price of the product was set, but the amount of kilos was based on availability.
One week later—after returning to Florida—Diaz made the call. Ole sent a driver to McAllen, where he rented a motel room. The driver—another one of Ole’s cousins—left the vehicle in the parking lot with the keys in the engine. Someone with Beltran-Leyva’s organization picked up the vehicle and drove it to a warehouse. There, “mechanics” dismantled it, fitted it with fifty kilos of cocaine, and re-assembled the vehicle.
Two days later the car—swollen with product—was dropped off in the motel’s parking lot. Two days after that, Ole’s cousin—once outside of Orlando—called Diaz to retrieve the vehicle.
“I’d meet him in the parking lot or at his house,” says Diaz. The going rate was nine hundred dollars per kilo for transportation. “I’d hand him forty-five thousand in cash, pick up the car, and drop off the coke at one of the stash-houses.” Diaz would then hand off ten to fifteen kilos to Ole’s distributor. Days later he’d collect the cash and repeat the process. “Two weeks later we’d send another driver and it all started over again.”
Every few weeks Diaz would fly cash into Mexico. He’d stay with Ole’s family for a week before returning to Orlando. While in Mexico, he would socialize with Aviles in Cuernavaca, accompanying the drug trafficking-surfer out to exclusive nightclubs and expensive restaurants. After a few months, Diaz was introduced to Avile’s boss, Jose Jorge Balderas Garza (known as “JJ”) whom Diaz would later learn reported directly to Arturo Beltran-Leyva’s chief lieutenant, the infamous Edgar Valdez-Villareal (aka “La Barbie”).
Unlike Aviles, whom Diaz got along well with, “JJ was nothing but trouble,” confesses Diaz. “This guy epitomized the cowboy mentality of a reckless drug trafficker. I wanted nothing to do with him.” Although Diaz never particularly liked JJ, he valued his relationship with Aviles. Unfortunately, dealing with Aviles meant having to deal with the JJ’s of the underworld also. “I think of myself as a nice guy, but JJ was the type of guy that’d have you shot for looking at him wrong.” Diaz continues, “The guy was insane. He was all about status and power.”
Fortunately, Arturo Beltran-Leyva himself lived in Cuernavaca, and he forbid any nonsense in his own backyard. “That typically kept guys like JJ in line.”
BY THE SPRING 2007, Mexico was embroiled in a full on narco war, as the Sinaloa Federation fought to take over the Gulf and Juarez cartels distribution routes. The fighting along the border for control of the key plazas had turned the country into the murder capital of the world. While the Zetas alone were able to hold their plazas in northeastern Mexico, the rest of the country fell under the Federation’s control as Chapo Guzman and Arturo Beltran-Leyva eliminated their competition.
DIAZ HAD BEEN BEFRIENDED by several young guys while partying in Cuernavaca. Juan Pablo, a chubby outgoing Mexican kid, and Dane Ziperski. He was the son of a wealthy American from Wisconsin who was attending the Technology of Monterey. “It’s a University for privileged Euro-Mexican kids. Dane was a chick magnet, but a babe in the woods; the guy was always getting himself into trouble.”
To Diaz, Cuernavaca—with its leafy streets and gorgeous mansions—was paradise. “I loved the place. It was a totally different world; it was like living in Beverly Hills.” Cuernavaca is where Mexico City’s elite maintained their weekend homes and by that spring, Diaz and his crew of friends were partying at the Grande Hotel and Aldridge—the most exclusive nightclubs in the city. “The clubs were stacked with attractive upper-class women, politicians, actors, and famous musicians.” Diaz’s dirty blonde hair and fair skin gives him the appearance of an Anglo who just so happens to speak conversational Spanish. “The Mexican girls loved me.”
As a young narco making a name for himself, Diaz lived in the moment. Sexual promiscuity was part of the lifestyle. Soon, a Mexican girlfriend was one of several beautiful women he spent time with. However, none of his Mexican friends suspected he was a narco. “They were a bunch of spoiled rich kids,” confides Diaz with a laugh. “They were quick to believe I was just another rich American.”
IN MID 2007, Diaz moved to Mexico permanently. He was spending more and more time with Ole’s family and his friends. Moving there felt like the right decision. “I liked the culture and I had a family there that loved me,” says Diaz. “Ole had just finished building this huge house in Cuernavaca. “I had my own room . . . friends. It felt like home.”
Plus, as an American he was able to travel freely between the two countries; arrange deliveries of product, rent stash-houses, distribute product, and move the money for the cartel. This is where Diaz’s story begins.
THE TSA AGENT asked Diaz to step into an interview room off of the large security area in the Orlando International Airport. It was a strange request and his adrenaline immediately spiked. Diaz had made the trip into Mexico—while carrying cash—over a dozen times and he’d never been so much as questioned by security. Once in the small eggshell colored room, Diaz was asked to place his book-bag on the table. “The x-ray machine picked up something,” admitted the agent. “It’s probably nothing.” Unfortunately for Diaz, less than 30 seconds later he discovered twenty tightly bound rolls of U.S. green backs held in place by thick rubber bands. “Huh,” grunted the agent, as he stacked $200,000 in cash on the table. “It’s not nothing.”
While Diaz sat in the room waiting for the DEA to arrive his stomach squeezed into a ball of anxiety at the thought of losing the cartel’s money. The DEA agent that showed up to question him was polite, but insistent that the money wasn’t going with Diaz to Mexico.
“But it’s my money,” pled the twenty-one-year-old narco. He tried to convince the agent that he’d made it painting houses and landscaping. “It’s not drug money. You can’t just take it.”
“Actually I can.” He informed Diaz that he wasn’t buying his explanation, however, he did state that if Diaz could prove where the money had come from, the DEA would gladly return his $200,000 of “landscaping” money. “Look, I’m not sure how deep you’re in this thing,” said the agent, “but now is the time to get out.”
“The money’s mine; I made it working—”
The agent cut him off. “It’s cartel money kid.” He told Diaz he’d seen a hundred individuals just like him. “Some of them disappear, others are murdered—these are vicious people kid—the lucky ones end up in prison.”
He handed Diaz his card and a confiscation form; and walked out of the room with the cartel’s $200,000.
Diaz contacted a lawyer, who informed him that without proof the cash had been obtained legally—via cancelled checks and tax returns—there was no way to retrieve the funds. Diaz was concerned when he arrived in Mexico without the cash—people have been killed for a lot less. Ole, however, took it in stride. “These things happen,” he conceded. Although the cartel didn’t like losses they were willing to overlook them provided the individual could prove the money had been seized by law enforcement, which Diaz could prove. “I’ll talk to JJ,” continued Ole, “he’ll let us work it off.”
“Of course I’m sure.”
After the loss, Diaz began taping the cash to his waist—wrapping himself in cellophane—or packing it in his luggage. In fact, roughly a month later, Diaz and Yanil Duran—a hot Dominican girl he’d known since high school—flew into Mexico with $100,000 in cash; $50,000 of it was strapped around Diaz’s waist and—unbeknownst to Yanil—the other fifty was tucked inside of her suitcase.
“I never told her what I was doing,” admits Diaz, “just that I wanted her to meet my uncle, and do some site seeing in Acapulco.”
WORLD-RENOWNED FOR ITS famous cliff divers, Acapulco is Mexico’s playground for the rich. “I started making trips to Acapulco with Aviles, the drug-trafficking surfer. Also, I had started developing friendships with some of the rich kids in Cuernavaca, who I’d party with down there. It was the best of both worlds.”
Understand, behind the facade of wealth and glamour, Acapulco was also a haven for the underworld, whose members would travel south for a good time at the bars and strip clubs. Located in the southern state of Guerrero, the Acapulco plaza was firmly in the control of the Sinaloa Federation. The administration of which was handled by the Beltran-Leyva Organization.
DIAZ GOT HIS OWN PLACE in Costa Azul, Acapulco. “I was driving a silver S-type Jaguar, hitting the clubs, partying with my friends,” says Diaz, “then I’d fly to Orlando to meet the drivers or to Houston to coordinate the transportation of the product.” He admits that things didn’t always work as expected. “Sometimes these guys wouldn’t show up. I mean, just ’cause it’s organized crime doesn’t mean things ran smoothly. You’re not dealing with professionals.”
Ole once had a white 1987 Chevy Suburban fitted with sixty kilos—over a million dollars of product. He then arranged for a driver to take the Suburban, along with six illegals to Florida. “They got caught during a random stop,” states Diaz. It turned out that the driver’s operator’s license as well as his visa had expired. Also, the vehicle wasn’t registered in his name. “The Suburban was impounded and after like, like, four months, it was put up for auction.”
On a hunch, Ole had Diaz hire a licensed auto dealer to go with him to the police auction. “We ended up paying a thousand dollars more than the Suburban was worth—because this other guy kept bidding on the thing . . . But when me and Ole cracked open the dash, and the quarter-panels, the coke was still there. I couldn’t believe it.”
IN LATE 2007, Ole’s cousin, Jorge Hernandez, got married in the Acapulco Event Center near the Playa Princess area. In attendance were half a dozen of the Beltran-Leyva syndicate’s upper echelon, including, among others, Edgar Valdez-Villareal, a drug lord known throughout the underworld by the nickname: La Barbie.
Valdez-Villareal was a Mexican-American from Texas who “imported tons of cocaine into the U.S. while ruthlessly working his way up the ranks” of the Beltran-Leyva Organization, U.S. Attorney Byung Pak would later claim in court. Valdez-Villareal was known as “La Barbie” because of his light complexion, blond hair, and blue eyes; giving him the appearance of Barbie doll’s male companion. Valdez-Villareal was Arturo Beltran-Leyva’s chief lieutenant. He’d taken control of the organization’s operations in Acapulco.
Although he was considered one of Mexico’s most-wanted criminals, Valdez-Villareal arrived at the wedding in a conspicuous six SUV caravan, surrounded by armed bodyguards. Other than JJ—who was the equivalent of middle management—it was the first time Diaz had interacted with any of the higher-level members of the organization. “I got introduced to Barbie at the wedding.” According to Diaz, the drug lord was someone serious. Dangerous. Much more dangerous than Aviles. “Once he learned I was an American though, he was actually kind a’ friendly.” Diaz grinned. “I think he liked being around another gringo.”
That evening Diaz, Aviles, and JJ accompanied Valdez-Villareal and his entourage to the nightclubs Palladium and Mandara. “Walking into a club with Barbie was like being out with the President. People were tripping over themselves to serve us.” The owners cleaned out entire sections of the clubs so that Valdez-Villareal could have a private area to party. Later, he took the group to Privado, an after-hours club that stayed open all night. The women there were expensive prostitutes; every one of them more beautiful than the next. Valdez-Villareal arranged for twenty of the women to provide entertainment. “By then,” says Diaz, “we’d been out all night. There was booze and cocaine and girls. Once Barbie and his friends started switching off and doing all kinds of crazy stuff; that’s when I knew I had to get outta there.”
The situation was out of control. According to Diaz, “these guys lived their lives as if every day was going to be their last. And for many of them, it was.”
One week later, the Sinaloa Cartel’s enforcers threw severed heads into an Acapulco nightclub as a warning to the Zetas to keep their operatives out of Federation territory. “I’d seen bodies in the street,” admits Diaz. “You’d hear gunfire sometimes, but I was lucky. I was never involved in violence like that, but I knew it was out there.”
One of Diaz’s friends’ brother, Humberto—a rich kid that thought it was cool to hangout with narcos—was at Club Palladium in Acapulco when nearly a dozen Zetas entered the club. They gunned down nearly twenty Sinaloa associates, along with Humberto. “He was in the wrong place, wrong time.”
OFFICER RUSSEL with the Ocala Police Department noticed Diaz’s Chevy Blazer swerve out of the gas station at an excessive speed. It was slightly after midnight on April 17, 2008. Immediately he flipped on his lights.
Diaz heard the whoop! whoop! of the cruiser’s siren before he noticed the light. “Fuck,” he hissed to his buddy, Christian Santana, who was sitting in the passenger. Diaz had $150,000 in a backpack resting in the backseat. Cash that belonged to the cartel. He and Ole had just finished reimbursing Aviles for the $200,000 seized by the DEA. “This is so bad.”
He’d been drinking—although he doesn’t believe he was legally intoxicated—and his license was expired. There was no way the officer wasn’t going to search the vehicle.
Diaz grabbed the bag in the backseat, turned to Santana and grunted, “I’m gone.”
“No, no don’t do it,” he replied as Diaz pulled the SUV to a stop. He shot out of the driver’s site and took off running. He heard the officer screaming, however, he didn’t slow down. Diaz jumped a wooden fence, ran across a highway, and entered an apartment complex. He shot through a wooded area and entered a suburban neighborhood.
Eight responding patrol units swarmed the interconnected streets as the K-9 unit’s German Shepherds tried—unsuccessfully—to pickup the suspect’s scent. Diaz spent the next hour underneath an Econoline van listening to the helicopter’s blades whip through the air and the dogs barking in the distance.
When all was quiet, he slipped out from underneath the van and hid the backpack in a thick of palmettos. Somewhere around two a.m. Diaz—covered in dirt and scratches—walked to the nearest street and waved down a passing Ocala Police cruiser.
The officer rolled down the windows and asked, “You the guy we’re looking for?”
“Yeah, that’s me.”
Diaz was charged with driving on a suspended license, resisting arrest without violence, and obstruction without violence. He was order to serve four months in the Marin County Jail.
THE SITUATION IN MEXICO took a dramatic turn for the worse while Diaz was inside. Earlier that year, Arturo Beltran-Leyva’s older brother, Alfredo, was arrested by the Mexican Army in Culiacan, Sinaloa. The high profile arrest of a key leader was followed by the arrest of eleven Beltran-Leyva operatives in Mexico City.
Arturo was aware of Chapo Guzman’s tactic of using law enforcement to eliminate his rivals and he firmly believed that Guzman was behind the betrayal. The arrest undermined the long-term alliance between Guzman and the Beltran-Leyva brothers. As a result, they publicly accused Guzman of having delivered Alfredo to the authorities over a business dispute. Whether Guzman was responsible for Alfredo’s arrest (as Newsweek would later claim) is not known. What is known, however, is that the Beltran-Leyva Organization and their allies formally declared war against the Sinaloa Cartel, fracturing the Federation.
Shortly thereafter, Arturo had a secret meeting with top members of the Los Zetas in Cuernavaca. There, they agreed to forge a new alliance. The Beltran-Leyva brothers and their defecting allies moved swiftly to avenge Alfredo’s arrest; assassinating Guzman’s son, Edgar Guzman, who was killed in a grenade attack in Culiacan in May 8, 2008. The same day Arturo’s gunmen killed the commissioner of the Federal Police (Edgar Millan Gomez) who had served as the spokesman for Alfredo’s arrest, as well as other senior government officials.
The result was some of the worst bloodletting seen in Sinaloa. The killing of Guzman’s son and key lieutenants brought massive retaliation from Guzman with both sides suffering losses of hundreds of men.
The break between the Beltran-Leyva brothers and the Sinaloa Cartel was officially recognized by the U.S. government on May 30; with President Bush listing Arturo Beltran-Leyva as the leader of his own cartel and designating him and the organization as subject to sanctions under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Act.
UPON DIAZ’S RELEASE, he retrieved his Blazer and drove straight to the wooded area between the apartment complex and the neighborhood where he’d hid from the police. Surprisingly, Diaz’s backpack—filthy and moist from the elements—was still tucked in the foliage. “I couldn’t believe it,” recalls Diaz. “No one had found it. A few days later, I flew to Mexico City with Yanil and the cash.”
Once Diaz arrived in Cuernavaca, he quickly discovered everything had changed. “As soon as I got to Aviles’ house, I knew something was going on. There were armed men patrolling everywhere.” Although, Aviles greeted the young-American-narco warmly, Diaz could tell he wasn’t the same laid-back surfer dude. “He had dark rings under his eyes—like he hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in weeks.”
Aviles explained that the Beltran-Leyvas were at war with the Sinaloa Cartel and that the killings of Chapo Guzman’s son had brought massive retaliation. According to Aviles, hundreds of men had been killed that summer alone. “Chapo’s spending a fortune on manpower; he’s got teams of hit men operating everywhere looking to knock off any of the Beltran-Leyva brothers or their lieutenants. Everyone’s on a war footing. It’s getting bad,” Aviles explained. He whispered that people were concerned that “Arturo had overplayed his hand” by killing Guzman’s son. “We can’t fight everyone.”
The Beltran-Leyva’s organization was now based in Mexico City and they were focusing on keeping control of the southern plazas. Aviles warned that it wasn’t safe in Cuernavaca and that Diaz should move his operation south to Acapulco, where Barbie had control over the plaza.
“I really felt bad for him,” states Diaz. “He couldn’t just up and leave like I could. Understand, I was just a distributor on the American side. A nobody, really. But Aviles, he’d hitched his wagon to the Beltran-Leyvas; he was stuck.”
Before returning to Orlando, JJ provided Ole with the contact information for Jesus Tijerina Garza, one of Beltran-Leyva’s operatives in the United States. Garza’s organization was responsible for distributing the cartel’s cocaine in Georgia and Florida. Loads of product were shipped via tractor trailer from southern Texas to Marion County in south Georgia, where Garza maintained his base of operations. As it turned out, Garza was already doing business with Domingo Rodriguez-Mederos—Ole’s cousin by marriage. “Once we realized there was a family connection, it was all good,” recalls Diaz. Garza would supply Ole with loads up to one hundred kilos which Ole and Diaz would then distribute to their customers in central Florida. “We didn’t have to worry about getting the product transported from Texas. All that was handled by Garza.”
MUCH TO EVERYONE’S SURPRISE, the Beltran-Leyva Organization and their allies, including Los Zetas, were able to fight the Sinaloa Cartel to a draw. By then the Zetas had split with the Gulf Cartel and had merged with the Beltran-Leyva Organization—creating the second most powerful syndicate to the Federation. Although the Beltran-Leyva Organization lost control of their territories in Sinaloa and Sonora, the organization gained control of the southern plazas and the center of the country (Mexico City and the State of Morelos). Because of their alliance with the Zetas, they had gained access to the plazas in northeast Mexico, including the Reynosa, Matamoros, Nuevo Laredo, and Tampico drug corridors.
Thus, for Diaz and Ole, nothing changed over the next fifteen months. They bounced between Mexico and Florida conducting their affairs while the war between the cartels raged on. Ole coordinated the shipments of product from Mexico City while Diaz coordinated the deliveries with Ole’s cousin (Rodriguez-Mederos). By this point, Diaz was handling both the distribution of the product end as well as collecting the proceeds. He was also responsible for transporting the cartel’s money.
IN DECEMBER 2009, the Mexican government began an offensive against the Beltran-Leyva Organization. On December 11, a unit of naval Special Forces backed by attack helicopters raided a house in a luxury gated community outside of Mexico City. There was a shoot-out and three gunmen died, but Arturo Beltran-Leyva and a group of his security forces escaped. Nearly a week later the Mexican authorities tracked Arturo to luxury continuum in a suburb of Cuernavaca, where they trapped him inside. Arturo’s men counterattacked, firing machine guns and throwing hand grenades.
While Arturo’s security detail were firing out of windows, he called his old friend Valdez-Villareal and asked him to send a team of hit men to help him break out. Unfortunately for Arturo—after conducting some surveillance of the siege—Valdez-Villareal told Arturo his situation was helpless. “Give yourself up.”
“I’ll never give up,” replied Arturo. “Never!”
Unwilling to surrender Arturo and his men engaged in a two-hour firefight before the marines stormed the building, blowing everything apart. Arturo was killed in the shootout. Three of his bodyguards also lost their lives; a fourth committed suicide.
DIAZ WAS IN ACAPULCO when he learned of Arturo’s death. Over the Christmas holiday he discussed it with Ole. He wanted to know what Arturo’s death meant for them. “He told me that Arturo didn’t know us; didn’t give a damn about us; and wouldn’t have hesitated to sacrifice us if it were in his interest.” According to Ole, that was the nature of the business. “Ole said that Arturo’s death didn’t mean a thing because whoever took over would still need men like us to work on the American side. The cartels and their endless fights to control the plazas would continue so long as the American’s craved drugs and there were young men like me—American narcos—who were willing to risk their freedom for money, status, and sex.”
“STEP OUT OF THE VEHICLE,” demanded the policia official to the female driver of the white Ford Escalade. His partner stood behind the vehicle to the left of his Federale Policia cruiser. His hand laid atop his holstered weapon. Diaz sat in the passenger seat nervously glancing between the officer’s blazing Maglite and the rearview mirror. There was nearly $200,000 in the book bag resting at his feet. Again, the officer stated, “Out of the vehicle.”
The driver, twenty-eight-year-old Mariluz Velez, pulled her government issued credentials out of her purse and flashed it at the police officer.
Diaz had met Mariluz at a pool party months earlier. She was well educated and, although Mariluz was Mexican, she spoke fluent English and possessed the silky black hair and pale skin of a Spaniard.
Due to her father’s position in the government, Mariluz had been appointed Youth Director in Acapulco. The position came with a certain amount of prestige. She’d just picked up Diaz from the airport—he’d barely had time to strip off the cash and tuck it into his bag before the policia pulled them over.
Mariluz’s held the credentials up to the officer’s face and sighed. “I’m Mariluz Velez—a director with the government—why are you stopping me?”
The most likely explanation was the police officer had seen the expensive SUV and were hoping to extract a small bribe. Instead, the officers quickly apologized “for the mistake. I did not realize; obviously you can go Director.”
Mariluz family was wealthy and according to Diaz—who was twenty-three at the time—they didn’t have anything in common. “All she cared about was that I was a good looking American,” says Diaz. “That was a big deal. It was a status thing for her.”
AFTER ARTURO’S DEATH, his brother, Carlos, took control of the Beltran-Leyva Organization. Two weeks later, however, Carlos was captured by the Mexican Federal Police in Culiacan, Sinaloa. Shortly thereafter, the organization became plagued with internal strife. Edgar Valdez-Villareal (“La Barbie”) disputed the cartels’ leadership after Hector Beltran-Leyva was elevated to El Jefe de Jefes (the Boss of Bosses), a position Barbie wanted for himself. Infighting for control broke out with one faction being led by Valdez-Villareal, while the other was led by Hector Beltran-Leyva.
DIAZ WAS LEANING on the brass rail of Palladium nightclub—a week before Valentines’ Day. The twenty-threeyear-old was there with Ole and Aviles. JJ and his crew were also there along with a man known as “El Indio” (Gerado Alvarez-Vasquez), a prominent narco who was allied with Valdez-Villareal in the battle for control of the Beltran-Leyva Cartel. That evening Indio was entertaining “El Cantante” (Dagoberto Jiminez), the narco who was responsible for negotiating cocaine purchases in Central America on behalf of Valdez-Villareal’s organization. Cantante had traveled to Acapulco to meet Valdez-Villareal’s and Indio.
Diaz wasn’t privy to their discussion. Nor did he even know why he was out with them that night; all Ole had told him was that they were going out to a club.
In the middle of dinner Diaz excused himself. While standing at the urinal he noticed that two men in suits had entered the facilities. They stood-point at the door until Diaz, had finished, and exited the restroom.
He then noticed them following him through the club. Concerned, Diaz walked out of the building and, sure enough, the two suits followed him outside. They stood at a distance idly waiting for him.
At this point Diaz didn’t know what to think. He immediately rushed into the club, found Ole seated at the table with the others and pointed out his stalkers.
Ole advised Diaz not to worry, the men were bodyguards. “They work for Indio; they’re here for his protection, and his guests.” Ole explained that there were over twenty guards in and around Palladium. “Simply being with Indio could get us killed.”
“Should I introduce myself to ‘im?” asked Diaz.
“No,” grunted Ole, dismissively, “he’ll be dead soon; they (the Beltran-Leyvas) are looking for him.”
Indio drank all night. At nine in the morning he was so intoxicated that several of his body guards had to carry him out. They loaded their boss into one of six white Suburbans and the caravan took off.
Ten weeks later, on April 21, 2010, Alvarez-Vasquez (“El Indio”) was arrested in Cuernavaca, along with eighteen members of his security detail, after a fierce shoot-out with the Mexican marines. Then, four days later, El Cantante (Dagoberto Jiminez) was arrested in Mexican City. One by one, Valdez-Villareal’s allies were getting knocked off by the authorities. These were the lucky ones.
DIAZ WAS BACK in Orlando, some four months later, when he heard the news. His friend, Rafael Aviles, had been killed by one of the Beltran-Leyva hit teams hunting down Valdez-Villareal’s associates.
Aviles and three of Valdez-Villareal’s other distributors had been decapitated. Their corpses were then hung from a bridge in Cuernavaca. Hanging with the four decapitated bodies was a narcomanta, a banner which stated: “This is what happens to all those who support the traitor Edgar Valdez-Villareal.”
“I was sick about that,” says Diaz. “I liked Aviles, a lot. But Ole said I had to get used to losing people; it happens a lot in drug trafficking.”
Later that month, on August 30, 2010, Valdez-Villareal (“La Barbie”) was captured by the Federal Police near Mexico City. Five months later, on January 18, 2011, Jose Jorge Balderas Garza (aka “JJ”), the lieutenant and chief financial operator of Barbie’s faction was also captured.
DIAZ AND OLE arrived in the parking lot of a Target outside Orlando as the Florida sun scorched the asphalt. They were early for the meeting with Domingo “Mingo” Rodriguez—Ole’s cousin by marriage. The DEA had recently collapsed Garza’s operation and Mingo—who had worked directly with Garza—was handing off his Ocala customers to Ole and Diaz, and returning to Mexico. Mingo introduced Ole and Diaz to a couple of black drug dealers, brothers, he’d been working with. Nathaniel and Casey Shuler had been distributing twenty to thirty kilos per month for nearly a year. While standing in the parking lot, the men discussed prices—$29,000 per kilo—and quantity. “We started them off with ten [kilos] on consignment,” pronounces Diaz. “They wanted as many as we could come up with.” Before the meeting ended, Nate made a comment regarding one of their brothers. “He said his brother was the black sheep of the family, he was a lieutenant at the federal prison, just outside of Ocala.”
The first deal went smooth—the brother took position of the product and a week later they handed over the cash. Ole and Diaz felt comfortable and a week later the process was repeated.
DIAZ AND HIS OLDER BROTHER walked through the front door of their uncle’s house. Standing in the living room was a middle-age Hispanic woman. “None of us had seen our mother for more than ten years,” admits Diaz. “I’d always thought she was dead.”
They hugged and cried. He and Jose weren’t upset—they were just glad she was alive—but they did have a lot of questions for her. “While talking with her I realized that she was a little slow,” he says. “As a kid I’d never noticed it.” After disappearing, she’d worked for KFC for the last ten years. “She didn’t have anything. No car. No house. Just a shitty apartment.” They spoke for an hour and “we made arrangements to meet her a week later.”
Diaz picked his mother up at her apartment in Palatka—a one-stoplight town not far from Ocala—and treated her to Chili’s. According to Diaz, it was the nicest restaurant in Palatka.
Over skewered shrimp and Coors light Diaz asked, “Why’d you leave me.” The question had been gnawing at him since the night at his uncles. “You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.”
She looked down at the tiled tabletop, ashamed. “I thought, I thought you kids didn’t love me.”
The answer hardened him. He felt angry at the foolishness of her response. Even a dog, thought Diaz, wouldn’t abandon its puppies. “That’s the best you can come up with, after eleven years?”
He’d have rather heard she simply couldn’t afford to feed, clothe, and house them. Diaz would have accepted anything within reason.
“I have plenty of money, you know.” He pulled a stack of bills out of his pocket, then confided that he was an international drug trafficker. But she didn’t seem to understand the severity of the disclosure. “It’s dangerous,” he added. “I could go to prison.”
“Oh, well, just be careful.”
The entire conversation felt wrong. Diaz turned cold, emotionally detached, and he longed to be in Acapulco. Interestingly, during the weeks that I’ve interviewed Diaz, every time I bring up his mother, he became emotional. After all of these years the mere thought of her abandonment brought him to tears.
DIAZ RANDOMLY pulled up local drug arrests on the Ocala Sheriff’s Office website. In late-June, he punched in the name Shuler, and, a black male’s booking photo appeared. The brief description explained that on June 11, 2015, Casey Shuler’s vehicle had been pulled over by sheriff’s deputies—he later learned that the traffic stop had been requested by the DEA. During the search of the vehicle deputies discovered a kilo of cocaine, marijuana, and a significant amount of cash.
Understand, Diaz didn’t deal with Casey—he’d only met him once—he dealt with Nate. However, the photo looked familiar. He turned to Ole and asked, “Do you recognize this guy?”
“Jesus, that’s Casey,” replied Ole.
At the time, the two brothers owed Ole and Diaz $94,000—most of which was the cartel’s. Diaz called Nate for several days with no success. Then, sometime in late June, Diaz pulled up to a pump at a gas station near Orlando. As he pushed the nozzle into his Blazer, he noticed Nate—not fifteen feet away—pumping fuel into his Land Rover.
“He looked terrified when he recognized me,” says Diaz. “I asked him about the money, and he admitted that his brother had been arrested.” He told Diaz that some of the money had been seized and he’d used the rest of the funds to hire a criminal attorney. Diaz was unmoved by his brother’s legal issues. “I told him, ‘We need that money. That’s cartel money.'”
He said he could pay, but he needed time. His brother was in the federal detention center and Nate couldn’t be sure the DEA wasn’t watching him. But he’d get the money. Nate spun Diaz and Ole another week, eventually agreeing to meet at a stash house in July.
Diaz told Nate that he needed to “figure something out. If you don’t come up with the cash it’s gonna be bad. These guys are going to send someone to your house, and they’re not gonna ask nice like me.”
“I know that, okay, I’m tryin’,” replied Nate as desperation set in. “I just need some more time.” Nate, unbeknownst to Diaz, was wired. Worse still, the DEA was listening in.
OLE WAS MAKING TACOS and Diaz was on Facebook on Wednesday, August 24, 2011, when someone pounded on the front door. Ole turned the handle and a DEA agent, wearing a Kevlar vest, slammed it wide open. Suddenly a dozen more agents swarmed inside yelling, “Get on the ground,” while pointing assault rifles at the two narcos.
They were handcuffed and shown an indictment charging them with conspiracy to distribute more than five kilos of cocaine. During a search of the house, the agent seized over $75,000, but no drugs or weapons.
Diaz and Ole were transported to the U.S. Marshals’ holding center in Marion County. One month later Diaz was released on bond. Ole—who was in the U.S. illegally—was remanded.
Diaz’s federal criminal defense attorney, David Wilson, advised him to accept a plea deal and cooperate. “Talk to the prosecutor and the agents—the first one to talk gets the best deal.”
“There’s not gonna be any deals,” replied Diaz. No drugs had been seized and Ole certainly wasn’t going to cooperate against him or the cartel. “All they’ve got is me talking about collecting some money; it could mean anything. I’m going to trial.”
THE CARTEL LAWYER nodded his head as Diaz explained the federal government’s case surrounded by Ole’s sister and two other Mexican women. “Paquita”—Ole’s sister—had flown in from Acapulco for an appointment with Thomas Thad*, an attorney who was highly recommended by Ole’s associates in the cartel.
Thad had gotten several drug traffickers’ charges dismissed in the State of Florida. Paquita didn’t trust the public defenders representing Ole and Diaz. She wanted private counsel. Paquita told Diaz to ask Thad how much cash would it take to make the case “go away?”
Diaz informed her he didn’t think it was a good idea to ask the lawyer that. “He’ll freak out.”
“Ask him,” she demanded. “Ask him!”
“She want’s me to make the case go away—she wants to know how much would it take to do that?”
“No, no, no,” replied Thad slightly unnerved by the question. He explained that although bribes were common in Mexico “it doesn’t work like that here; especially in the federal system.”
Paquita—ignoring the attorney’s response—wanted Diaz to tell him she’d pay whatever it took to get her brother out on bond. “Then,” she confided, “I can get you both out of the country.” That sent the lawyer into full blown panic and he informed Diaz he couldn’t represent him or Ole.
THE TRIAL WAS SCHEDULED for January 23, 2012, and Wilson was pushing Diaz to take a deal. “You’ve got less than a fifty-fifty chance at trial,” he admitted during an attorney-client conference. He showed Diaz the government’s key evidence—a video and several phone calls made by Diaz, wherein he asked about the money—it looked bad.
Wilson spoke with the U.S. prosecutor, Tysen Duva, and she agreed to five years. Ole had accepted a deal for eleven years, and he told Diaz to consider taking the five, so, Diaz took the deal. Unfortunately, at the change of plea hearing, when the judge asked him how he plead, Diaz—afraid that he’d be taken into custody right then—had a change of heart.
He leaned into the microphone and said, “Not guilty, Your Honor.”
His attorney dropped his head on the defense table and the prosecutor glared at him. She was furious. Weeks later—once again—Diaz’s attorney convinced him to accept the plea, but at the last minute he changed his mind. The following week, Diaz cancelled a second change of plea hearing. The prosecutor was so angry she told Wilson, “No more pleas, we’re going to trial.”
Day one went well, Diaz tells me. “On the second day, though, I rode the elevator up to the courtroom with Nate and Casey Shuler. I couldn’t believe I was standing in an elevator with the two idiots who’d set me and Ole up. They were wearing pastel suits—they looked like clowns.”
Nate testified that Diaz was a huge drug trafficker working out of Acapulco, Mexico. He told the jury Diaz had supplied him with nearly three hundred kilos of cocaine which, according to Diaz, was a grossly inflated number. “They didn’t have any drugs, just some money,” says Diaz, “but my lawyer was right, it didn’t look good.”
On the third day of trial the judge gave the jury the case. They deliberated for about an hour, then, they found Diaz not guilty of several of the counts, but guilty of one count of conspiracy to distribute cocaine. His bail was revoked and he was immediately taken into custody.
At Diaz’s sentencing, on May 1, 2012, the government asked for fourteen years. The judge, however—after listening to Diaz’s attorney lay out the tragedy of his client’s childhood— declined. “She teared up when she gave me the mandatory minimum (ten years),” says Diaz. “She said she didn’t think I deserved it, but her hands were tied.”
BY THE TIME I met Diaz at the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in central Florida it was the summer of 2017. He’d been sent to a federal camp in Pensacola following his trial; there, he got into a fight and was transferred to a prison in Oakdale, Louisiana, and eventually to Elkton Federal Correctional Institution in Ohio.
In October 2016, he was transferred to Coleman—the same prison where Nathaniel and Casey Shuler’s brother worked as the compound officer.
“I see him everyday,” admits Diaz, “but he doesn’t know I’m the guy his brothers put in prison.”
Diaz is scheduled to be released in March 2019.