Pubdate: Mon, 02 Jan 2017
Source: San Diego Union Tribune (CA)
Copyright: 2017 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
Note: Seldom prints LTEs from outside it's circulation area.
Author: Kristina Davis


As Victor Emilio Cazares Gastellum stood in a San Diego courtroom for
sentencing Tuesday, the judge acknowledged the defendant was unlike the
vast majority of drug offenders he sees day in and day out.

Cazares was not your typical drug mule caught crossing the border, nor was
he a low-level distributor.

Cazares, 53, was a kingpin, the head of a large Mexican drug-trafficking
organization aligned with the powerful Sinaloa cartel. He was in the
business of shipping tons of cocaine from producers in Colombia and
Venezuela to Mexico and distributing the drug throughout the U.S.

Calling Cazares the "leader of a significant organization involved in the
wide-scale importation of drugs into the United States," U.S. District
Judge William Hayes sentenced Cazares to 15 years in prison.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration investigation into the
organization's vast network of smugglers and distributors, code named
"Operation Imperial Emperor," turned into one of the largest U.S.
investigations against the Sinaloa, resulting in some 400 arrests in the
U.S. and Mexico and the seizure of $45 million cash and tons of drugs,
prosecutors said.

Family ties solidified his connections to the Sinaloa cartel -- his sister
is a former mistress of Sinaloa drug lord Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada and his
nephew is married to the sister of Sinaloa co-leader Joaquin "El Chapo"
Guzman, the U.S. Attorney's Office said, citing information from sources.

Cazares, known as "The Gatekeeper" and "El Licenciado," also had a direct
link to the now-deceased Arturo Beltran Leyva, who worked for the Sinaloa
until he and his brothers broke away to form their own cartel.

Cazares' childhood was spent in the Sierra Madre mountains, a
drug-trafficking stronghold. He moved to the Los Angeles area in the 1990s
and eventually became a naturalized U.S. citizen. His time in the U.S.
included two arrests for simple methamphetamine possession -- charges
reduced to misdemeanors under California's Proposition 47, his attorney

He later moved back to Sinaloa, where he oversaw his cocaine business from
his ranch outside Culiacan that included a mansion, twin-towered church
and stables for his dancing horses, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Cazares used transportation cells of truck drivers, pilots and others to
smuggle cocaine across the U.S.-Mexico border, typically in the Calexico
area, and move it to cities across the U.S.

The smugglers, often holding drugs in secret compartments in vehicles,
would take backcountry routes, including through the Imperial Sand Dunes
and at least once using sandbags to ford the Colorado River outside Yuma,

The head of one transportation cell, Carlos "Charlie" Cuevas, oversaw
dozens of drivers and lookouts. His cell also trafficked marijuana and
methamphetamine, prosecutors said. Cuevas was sentenced to more than 11
years in prison.

Cazares' operation went undetected, likely for years, while the limelight
went to violent and brash cartels such as the Arellano Felix Organization
of Tijuana. Authorities who began investigating Cazares soon realized the
length of his reach.

That put him on the radar of the U.S. Organized Crime Drug Enforcement
Task Forces Program, a centerpiece of the U.S. Attorney General's effort
to focus on the biggest traffickers and money launderers and disrupt the
flow of drugs. Cazares was deemed a Consolidated Priority Organization
Target, part of an annual list of the most prolific organized criminals.

In 2007 he was indicted in San Diego along with 18 others, including his
son-in-law. A $5 million reward was offered for information leading to his

But he eluded capture for many years, including undergoing plastic surgery
for a more youthful look, the Los Angeles Times reported. He lived in a
self-imposed home confinement in Mexico for a while, saying he was afraid
of venturing out and being arrested.

"I was a fugitive of justice at that moment," Cazares told the judge
Tuesday. "I was closed in my home like someone in jail, afraid I'd be

He said he suffered from stress, illness and "paranoia of being
persecuted," and didn't risk telling his family where he was.

"Until I got to the point where I just wanted to go into public without
caring if I'd be arrested. I was so tired of being locked up in that

He was arrested on a U.S. warrant in April 2012 at a highway checkpoint
near Guadalajara. He has been jailed ever since. He was extradited to the
U.S. in March.

He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to import drugs in June, admitting his
role in moving more than 450 kilograms of cocaine. As part of the plea, he
agreed to forfeit $10 million. On Tuesday, he made his first payment of

"I'm very sorry for my actions of my past life," Cazares told the judge,
through a translator. "When I get out I'm going to live here and join a
church and work for God. I want to live in a house surrounded by my
children and grandchildren the rest of my life."

Three of Cazares' five children sat in court to show support.

Jan Ronis, Cazares' attorney, argued for a lower sentence for the sake of
the children, as well as other factors including his age and cooperation
resolving the prosecution. The judge instead agreed with the prosecution
and imposed the 15-year sentence.

The judge gave Cazares credit for the four years he served in Mexican
custody on the case. He was held at the maximum security Altiplano prison
west of Mexico City, from where Guzman made his brazen tunnel escape in

With Cazares' sentencing complete in San Diego, he will head to New York
where he faces similar charges. That case is apparently sealed. A federal
judge there could order his sentence in that case to be served
concurrently with this one.

Months after Cazares was indicted in 2007, his sister, Blanca Margarita
Cazares Salazar, the former mistress nicknamed "The Empress," was accused
of owning and controlling a network of money-laundering businesses in
Tijuana serving the Sinaloa. Her assets were frozen by the U.S. Treasury
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