Pubdate: Sat, 22 Jun 2013
Source: Oregonian, The (Portland, OR)
Copyright: 2013 The Oregonian
Author: Les Zaitz
Series: Under the curse of cartels - An Oregonian Special Report


Lou Nalepa, an agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, 
reached for his ringing cellphone as he guided his car through 
Portland freeway traffic.

On that Friday afternoon in February 2010, he expected to hear from a 
witness in an upcoming drug trial. Instead, he found on the line a 
fugitive he'd been chasing for six years.

"This is Pocho," said the voice on the other end -- Porfirio Arevalo-Cuevas.

The name means little to most Oregonians. But law enforcement 
officials know Arevalo-Cuevas as one of the most prolific drug 
traffickers in Oregon history, a violent thug with ties to Mexico's 
most notorious cartels.

Pocho, calling from somewhere in Latin America, was angry that U.S. 
officials had disrupted his drug trade there. He resented that 
Nalepa's work had helped jail relatives, including his mother, 
according to federal documents and law enforcement officials.

"Now," Pocho told Nalepa, his fury escalating, "I am going to start 
(messing) with you and your family."

The DEA whisked Nalepa, his wife, son and stepson out of the state 
for two weeks. Officials also installed high-tech security equipment 
at Nalepa's home that weekend and stepped up street patrols.

The threat illustrates the extraordinary brazenness of 
cartel-connected traffickers in the Northwest. Pocho in particular 
turned Salem into a national hub for meth, cocaine and heroin 
distribution before leading U.S. officials on a maddening 
international chase. Authorities traced his drugs as far away as 
Texas, Georgia and Illinois.

"It's hard to think of any drug organization in Oregon that was 
larger or had farther reach," said Dwight Holton, Oregon's interim 
U.S. attorney in 2010-11.

Pocho's story, constructed with documents rarely available to 
reporters plus interviews with officials and former traffickers, 
offers a window on the tactics used by him and the many like him. His 
operation was unusual for its size and sweep, officials said, but his 
reliance on relatives, ruthlessness and a seemingly endless supply of 
meth cooks, dealers and couriers was dismally common.

"The only way they'll take me is dead"

Pocho was born in the Mexican state of Michoacan and peddled pot for 
his dad as a kid. He quit school after eighth grade and later sneaked 
into the U.S. to join relatives. In spring 1997, at age 18, he and 
his girlfriend and two children moved into the Salem home of a 
cousin, according to federal court filings and law enforcement officials.

The cousin tutored Pocho in heroin trafficking. That November, Pocho 
stepped off a plane from Oakland, Calif., at Portland International 
Airport with 300 grams of heroin hidden under his insoles. He 
attracted a police officer's attention by nervously pacing, then 
quickly confessed. He served 13 months in the federal prison in 
Sheridan before being sent back to Mexico in 2000.

Pocho boomeranged right back to Salem and expanded into meth 
production, according to documents and officials. In September 2000, 
Salem police caught him with 7,400 pills of pseudoephedrine, a key 
meth ingredient, plus $1,240 and a .40-caliber Taurus handgun, 
according to Salem Police Department reports.

This time, Pocho had no plans to confess. He coolly gave police a 
false identity and chewed off portions of his fingertips on the way 
to jail to keep his true name secret. He was released on bail the next day.

"I'm like a fighting rooster," he bragged in a call intercepted by 
DEA agents in 2008. "The only way they'll take me is dead."

Pocho moved to a home nine miles east of Scio, a small town northeast 
of Albany where residents gather each spring for a Lamb & Wool Fair 
and its pie-eating contest.

Using connections to the La Familia cartel in Michoacan, Pocho opened 
some of the biggest meth labs Oregon has ever seen, federal court 
documents show. Investigators calculated that one superlab outside 
Brownsville, still the biggest ever found in Oregon, churned out 70 
pounds of meth a week, worth $700,000 wholesale.

Pocho's younger brother, Arturo, dropped out of Salem's McKay High 
School and joined the operation as a top aide. Other brothers made 
deliveries and sales. Sisters kept the books, paid the bills and 
shuttled to California for supplies.

In 2002, a meth cook's mistake destroyed the group's lab outside Scio 
in a fireball. Pocho's crew scattered unscathed before firefighters 
and police arrived. Investigators linked the lab to Pocho only years later.

Pocho and his family then settled in a two-story house just off of 
Salem's busy State Street. Pocho moved labs around the Willamette 
Valley, according to investigators.

In Salem, Pocho carried himself with a bravado common among 
traffickers in Mexico but unusual here, former associates said. Still 
in his 20s then and short and stocky at 225 pounds, Pocho favored 
Tommy Hilfiger jeans and shirts. He often wore a heavy gold necklace, 
a Mexican centenario framed by jewels. He told friends it was worth 
$20,000. He also had a girlfriend in addition to his wife, and 
children with both.

With his jet-black hair combed straight back and piercing eyes 
dominating a round face and thin mustache, Pocho regularly held court 
at El Flamingo, a nightclub on Salem's east side.

"He would roll in with 10, 15, 20 people," said a former associate, 
an Oregon man who asked that his identity be shielded to protect his 
safety. "He'd bring out a wad of cash and first thing buy 10 bottles 
of the most expensive wine."

Pocho would pay a Mexican band $10,000 to play for after-hours 
parties at the club, the man said. He also hired bands to write songs 
praising his drug-trafficking savvy, according to a federal wiretap 
affidavit. Some of the "narcocorridos" can still be found on YouTube.

"His vice is to be a cook of good heroin and crystal. And if you want 
to meet him, you'll find him in Oregon," says one, titled "El Pocho."

"He goes wherever he wants because he's not afraid of anyone."

Vicious to the core

Pocho lived up to the description.

One associate described how in 2002 Pocho held a pistol to his head 
while two other men hit and kicked him in the face, according to a 
federal wiretap affidavit. "Are you afraid to die?" one of the men 
asked. The associate passed the test and went on to work for Pocho for years.

Other insiders told DEA agents in 2008 that Pocho returned to Mexico 
in 2004 after ordering the Salem execution of a suspected thief. 
Agents searched but never found a body, according to Marion County 
Sheriff's Office records.

Pocho put his brother, Arturo, in charge of day-to-day operations but 
otherwise maintained brutal control. He sent collectors to rough up a 
Fresno, Calif., dealer behind on a $96,000 debt.

"Why did they come and get me, man?" the dealer asked Arturo in a 
phone call taped by investigators.

"Because you don't pay him, that's why," Pocho's brother replied. 
"Dude, it is 96 pesos that are over there."

In recordings from 2005, Pocho can be heard working the phones to 
track $162,000 left in a Lincoln Navigator seized by investigators 
after a bungled run to San Jose, Calif.

Pocho asked Arturo: Was the money hidden? No, his brother replied, it 
was in a duffel bag on a seat.

"That's why they have the cars with the hole," Pocho chided, 
referring to secret compartments in drug cars.

"You guys get your story straight and act dumb," he ordered.

State to state, nation to nation

By then, investigators knew they were on to something big.

That spring, the DEA raided the meth lab outside Brownsville and 
arrested Arturo, Pocho's girlfriend, three sisters and seven others. 
Pocho, keeping tabs from Mexico, sent an associate to recover 16 
pounds of meth from a pickup police had overlooked, a wiretap affidavit shows.

About this time, federal investigators think, Pocho formed an 
alliance with the Los Zetas cartel. Pocho shifted meth production to 
Mexico, in part to circumvent a U.S. clampdown on meth chemicals. He 
also recruited a new crew to rebuild his Salem operation, according 
to a federal affidavit, and reinforced his reputation for violence.

Insiders told investigators that in 2006, Pocho retaliated against a 
pair of brothers he suspected of stealing $50,000. He ordered rounds 
fired into the Salem home of one brother, though no one was hit, 
according to a federal wiretap affidavit, and had the other brother's 
home in Gervais burned to the ground.

Pocho paid his wife's two brothers $10,000 to kill the Salem cousin 
who first taught him the trade, mistakenly suspecting that the cousin 
had informed on him and caused his arrest back in 1997, according to 
federal investigators. The cousin traveled to Mexico in May 2006 and 
stayed in a house owned by Pocho. The brothers knocked on the door 
and cut him down with bullets when he answered, investigators said.

In a bizarre twist, Pocho had the body shipped back to Salem for an 
elaborate graveside service at City View Cemetery, complete with a 
mariachi band.

Falling to pieces

Even as Pocho's relatives and associates trooped through federal 
court in 2005 and '06 -- Arturo was packed off to a federal prison in 
Eden, Texas, to serve 11 1/2 years -- Pocho was making plans.

DEA agents got wind in 2007 that Pocho, working with the Sinaloa 
cartel, was plotting to smuggle 500- to 1,000-kilogram loads of 
cocaine from Colombia to Oregon. Pocho called an Oregon associate 
from Panama, according to a federal affidavit, saying he was about to 
leave for Guatemala "to start squaring up" -- bribing officials, 
investigators believed.

Panamanian officials, working with the U.S., got to him first. They 
jailed him the next day on money-laundering charges. They seized his 
property, including the gold necklace.

"I remember waiting for his photo out of Panama," said Nalepa, the 
DEA agent. "When I saw it, I felt like I sunk the winning putt at the Masters."

In late 2007, after a second long investigation, federal prosecutors 
in Oregon indicted Pocho and 23 others. They jailed his mother for 10 
days as a material witness, freeing her only after she agreed to 
provide a voice sample to compare with recorded phone calls.

Early the next year, Panama's president approved Pocho's extradition. 
Pocho and his allies hatched plans to buy his freedom with bribes, 
according to calls intercepted by U.S. agents.

The race was on. Nalepa, fellow DEA agent Shaun Alexander and Guy 
Gino, then a special agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs 
Enforcement, flew to Panama City, arriving Feb. 21, 2008.

Two days later, the three men and a DEA agent stationed in Panama 
headed back toward the airport expecting Pocho to be handed off there 
for the flight back, Gino said recently. They stopped for groceries 
on the way so they'd have something for Pocho to eat.

Then the local agent's phone rang.

"They can't find him," he said.

"What do you mean they can't find him?" Gino asked.

They went to the airport and paced the tarmac for two hours before an 
embarrassed Panamanian official showed up to explain that Pocho and 
two prison officials were missing. Panamanian investigators later 
determined that Pocho had walked though the prison gates the day 
before after paying five prison officials $500,000 to give him the 
identity of an inmate set for transfer to another prison.

Two years later, Pocho called Nalepa's government cellphone.

"I could not believe I was talking to someone who had been so elusive 
for so many years," Nalepa said recently. He has since left the DEA 
to become a special agent in the U.S. Postal Service's Office of 
Inspector General.

In a conversation that quickly grew heated, Pocho told Nalepa he had 
"eyes and ears everywhere" and knew Nalepa had traveled to Mexico and 
Central America to interview relatives. Nalepa, he said, had no idea 
how powerful he was.

"By threatening an agent's family, that was crossing a line that drug 
traffickers have not been willing to cross in the United States," 
said Holton, the former U.S. attorney. "We talked about what to do. 
Are we going to tolerate that kind of violence coming into Oregon or 
are we going to put our foot down and say, 'This stops now'?"

U.S. officials made catching Pocho a national priority, distributing 
"most wanted" fliers offering a $25,000 reward. They pressed Mexican 
authorities to do the same. Three months later, Mexican military 
commandos raided Pocho's ranch outside the town of Xalapa and 
arrested his uncle and three sisters. They also seized guns, 43 
cellphones, a gold Versace watch and "five fine horses" boarded there 
by the state governor.

Mexican police caught Pocho himself weeks after that in Puebla, about 
75 miles southeast of Mexico City. He was charged with bribery and 
sent to a prison three hours east of Mexico City to await extradition.

Now 34, Pocho remains in that prison, awaiting extradition to Oregon 
and U.S. justice.

Officials in both countries, wary of upsetting a sensitive process, 
won't say what happens next.

They were astonished to discover in early 2005 that 8 pounds of meth 
seized in Indiana had come from Pocho via the Fresno dealer, 
according to a federal wiretap affidavit. That meant Pocho's 
operation was so large that his drugs were reaching far from Oregon 
and, more important, feeding California's vast drug market. A DEA 
task force in Salem began tailing Pocho's associates, tapping phones 
and prodding for inside sources.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom