Devils, Deals And The DEA by David Epstein, ProPublica
Why Chapo Guzman was the biggest winner in the DEA’s longest running drug cartel case
For 14 months, the first thing Dave Herrod, a special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration, did every morning was boot up his laptop and begin tracking a 43-foot yacht with Dock Holiday painted on the stern.
In the summer of 2005, the DEA had intercepted a conversation in which members of a Mexican drug cartel known as the Arellano Félix Organization discussed buying a yacht in California. Herrod and his colleagues studied the classified ads in yacht magazines and determined that the Dock Holiday was the boat the AFO members wanted. DEA agents then managed to get on board and install tracking devices before the sale went through. That’s when Herrod started watching the boat on his laptop.
Since the early 1990s, the Arellano brothers — the inspiration for the Obregón brothers in the movie Traffic — had controlled the flow of drugs through what was perhaps the single most important point for illicit commerce in the world: the border crossing from Tijuana to San Diego. Much of the AFO’s success derived from its predilection for innovative violence. The cartel employed a crew of “baseballistas” who would hang victims from rafters, like piñatas, and beat them to death with bats. Pozole, the Spanish word for a traditional Mexican stew, was the AFO’s euphemism for a method of hiding high-profile victims: Stuff them headfirst into a barrel of hot lye or acid and stir for 24 hours until only their teeth were left, then pour them down the drain.
Dismantling the AFO had been an official project of the U.S. government since 1992, and an obsession of Herrod’s since the year before that, when he’d started chasing the cartel as a rookie agent stationed near San Diego. A former athlete, he spent years guzzling Pepsi and Mountain Dew to power through long workdays. His health, like everything else, took a backseat to the AFO case.
After the sale of the Dock Holiday, the trackers showed the vessel hugging the coast of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula, rounding the tip of Cabo San Lucas, and heading north into the Gulf of California to La Paz. Once in a while, it sailed to Rancho Leonero, where Javier Arellano Félix, the head of the AFO at the time, had a beach house. Herrod knew that Javier loved deep-sea fishing, and he was convinced that the cartel’s chief executive was using the boat. So the DEA launched Operation Shadow Game. The plan: Watch the Dock Holiday to find out if Javier would be on it, then intercept the boat should it stray beyond Mexico’s territorial waters.
For six weeks, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Monsoon stood sentinel off Baja California, waiting for the yacht to venture more than 12 nautical miles off the coast and into international waters. But it never did. On August 12, 2006, Operation Shadow Game came to an end. The Monsoon set off for other duties, and Herrod left his laptop dark for the first time since the previous summer.
Two days later, he got a call at 8 a.m. from the Florida-based Joint Interagency Task Force South, which was still monitoring the tracking devices. The Dock Holiday had left Mexican sovereignty south of Cabo San Lucas. The men on the boat were chasing marlin, zigzagging in and out of international waters: out to 19 miles, back to 10 miles, then out to 15, then back to 12. The task force wanted to know whether the Coast Guard should board the Dock Holiday if the opportunity arose.
Herrod had only a hunch as to who was on the boat. The DEA had deemed the operation an expensive failure and pulled its on-the-ground surveillance weeks earlier. Agents who had worked on the AFO case for years were being reassigned entirely. Herrod figured he’d never have another chance to catch Javier outside of Mexico. Without asking his supervisors, he gave the order: Send the Monsoon back.
At 1 p.m., 13.1 nautical miles off Mexico, the Coast Guard intercepted the Dock Holiday. Herrod waited at the office in San Diego, pacing back and forth, as the Coast Guard collected identification from those on board. Agents shuffled past his cubicle asking for updates, like restless children on a road trip. After two hours, he got a message from the Monsoon: eight men and three boys on board. At 4 p.m., photographs started coming through by e-mail. The first two faces, those of the captain and a crewman, were unfamiliar. So were the next two. Could he have been wrong? Then came the fifth picture, and it took Herrod’s breath away: a mustachioed man in a pale-yellow Lacoste shirt, reclining on white-leather seats. This was “El Nalgón,” or “Big Ass”: Manuel Arturo Villarreal Heredia, the 30-year-old chief enforcer for the AFO. According to agents, he was known for his facility with knife-based torture.
Herrod had never seen the young man in the sixth photo, though he had the Arellano family’s heavy eyebrows. Next came pictures of the three children and another unfamiliar man. In the final photo, staring wide-eyed into the camera, was a compact, square-jawed man wearing a thin gold chain that disappeared under the collar of his salmon-colored T-shirt. His pursed lips were framed by stubble and his eyebrows arched in subtle confusion. Herrod and an agent sitting beside him shot out of their chairs. The man was Javier.
The youngest of the Arellano brothers, he was the AFO’s Michael Corleone. He hadn’t asked to be in the family business — had left Tijuana and gone to business school, only to be called back — but, like Corleone in The Godfather, the young overlord had displayed a talent for organized crime and calculated violence. As the head of the AFO, he had directed hundreds of killings and kidnappings in Mexico and the U.S.
Javier’s arrest would be hailed by officials in the States as a decisive victory in what may have been the longest active case in the DEA’s history — a rare triumph in the War on Drugs. “We feel like we’ve taken the head off the snake,” the agency’s chief of operations announced. I can’t believe it actually fucking worked, Herrod recalls thinking.
But did it? Herrod is 50 years old now and nearing the end of his career with the DEA. In the time he spent hunting the Arellanos, his hair and goatee went from black to salt-and-pepper to finally just plain salt. He’s proud of the audacity and perseverance it took to bring down the cartel, and he knows he helped prevent murders and kidnappings. But when he looks back, he doesn’t see the clear-cut triumph portrayed in press releases. Instead, he and other agents who worked the case say the experience left them disillusioned. And far from stopping the flow of drugs, taking out the AFO only cleared territory for Joaquín Guzmán Loera — aka “El Chapo” — and his now nearly unstoppable Sinaloa cartel. Guzmán even lent the DEA a hand.
This is the story of the investigation as the agents saw it, including accounts of alleged crimes that were never adjudicated in court. “Drug enforcement as we know