From a cop's perspective, it was a good day, a great one even. The Humboldt County Drug Task Force brought in a huge case Nov. 3, the kind that captures headlines and makes careers, when agents reported seizing more than 11 pounds of methamphetamine and black tar heroin from a drug trafficking organization operating in Rio Dell, Eureka and Fortuna. During a pair of coordinated traffic stops and two subsequent searches, agents also seized more than $37,000 in suspected drug money. Coupled with the estimated street value of the meth and heroin, it represented a more than $400,000 hit to the Cabrera Drug Trafficking Organization's bottom line. It also represented the culmination of years of cultivating confidential informants, painstaking surveillance operations and delicate undercover work.
Busts of this size are rare — if not unprecedented — in Humboldt County, where cops might seize a pound of either meth or heroin a few times a year. That's because the higher one moves up the food chain of the illicit local narcotics market, the harder it is to make a case, as people grow incrementally more careful with less exposure. A street dealer who moves small amounts of meth or heroin to dozens of customers a day is more vulnerable than the guy who loads up his car to make one large daily shipment.
The Humboldt County Drug Task Force — a team of officers from a variety of local agencies under the command of the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office — is the only local entity that really has the ability to conduct prolonged, labor-intensive investigations. Even then, it's spread pretty thin, with thousands of large-scale marijuana grows dotting Humboldt's hills, the occasional hash lab explosion and a heroin and methamphetamine epidemic that lands Humboldt at or near the bottom of every state per-capita list aiming to quantify addiction and drug-related deaths among its counties.
And a single case can sometimes take years to bring home. When agents decided they were ready to pounce on Nov. 3, they'd already spent more than two years investigating the Cabrera Drug Trafficking Organization. Through a different lens, poring over court documents in the case, coupled with the latest National Drug Threat Assessment from the U.S. Department of Justice, can make one wonder if we're making any headway at all in the war on drugs, or if we're just pissing on a bonfire that's raging out of control and hoping to temper the flames.
It all started with a colossal — if simple — mistake. Alain Omar Cabrera, a 28-year-old undocumented Mexican national, was driving in Eureka on June 28, 2013 when he slowed to stop at an intersection but lurched over the white line and was pulled over by a Eureka traffic officer for the violation. According to court documents, Cabrera provided the officer with a fake name and a fake driver's license but was quickly found out. Suspicious, the officer called in a K-9 unit from the sheriff's department. As the dog worked its way around Cabrera's car, it barked, indicating it smelled narcotics inside.
At that point, Cabrera fled on foot but didn't make it far before he was caught and arrested. When officers searched his car they found a hidden compartment containing more than 5 ounces of methamphetamine. As Cabrera was taken to jail, officers checked the vehicle's registration and traced it back to a modest, two-bedroom apartment on the second floor of a brown building in the 800 block of Eighth Street.
When officers knocked on the door, Cabrera's wife, Lizbeth Lopez, a 21-year-old Mexican citizen in the United States illegally, opened the door. "Upon seeing law enforcement, Lopez immediately urinated on herself and on the floor," reads one investigative document in the case. That, coupled with Cabrera's traffic stop and a chokingly strong chemical odor emanating from the residence, was enough for officers to get a warrant to search the apartment. When they did, in the closet of the apartment's second bedroom, they found 7.5 pounds of methamphetamine in a couple of plastic tubs and more than $170,000 in cash in a small safe.
Lopez was arrested at the scene. The U.S. Attorney's Office immediately took on Cabrera and Lopez's prosecution in federal court, where they faced prison sentences ranging from a 10-year mandatory minimum to life and fines of up to $10 million.
Things grew more complicated a few months later when it was discovered that Lopez was more than five months pregnant. With prosecutors facing the potentially complicated prospect of having a child born in federal prison on U.S. soil to parents here illegally, Cabrera and Lopez entered into a joint plea agreement on Sept. 19, 2013. Lopez pleaded guilty to a single count of accessory after the fact, while her husband pleaded to a single count of conspiracy to possess methamphetamine with intent to distribute.
Lopez was released from prison on a sentence of time served and Cabrera — the alleged leader of a drug trafficking organization in Humboldt that bears his name — was sentenced to five years in federal prison and fined $100. Most of the sentencing documents in Cabrera's case have been sealed from public view, so it's unclear whether the U.S. Attorney's Office agreed to the sentence or lobbied the court for a longer prison term.
Whatever the reasons for the deal, by the time Cabrera was officially sentenced in the case, the Humboldt County Drug Task Force had already talked to a confidential informant who said the Cabrera Drug Trafficking Organization was humming again, with "three younger Hispanic male adults distributing large quantities of methamphetamine in the Eureka area," according to court documents.
While jokes abound about meth houses sprinkled throughout Humboldt's hills and some Eureka neighborhoods, the vast majority of the methamphetamine consumed in Humboldt County — and the nation — is produced in Mexico. According to the DOJ, the number of methamphetamine laboratories busted on U.S. soil dropped nearly 50 percent in the five-year period from 2010 to 2014. Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies throughout the country continued to report it as one of the largest narcotic threats in their jurisdictions and indicated there seemed to be no shortage of supply.
The National Drug Threat Assessment explains that domestic meth labs have likely declined due to "the high availability of high-purity, high-potency Mexican methamphetamine" that is smuggled across the border in massive quantities by drug cartels, or "transnational criminal organizations," in DOJ parlance. And while methamphetamine use seems to have tapered in some areas of the country, the meth market in the Pacific Northwest is still going strong, according to the DOJ.
Meanwhile, the report notes, the heroin market is also booming: "available in larger quantities, used by a larger number of people" throughout the country, and especially in the Pacific Northwest, where usage numbers are some of the highest in the nation. The assessment theorizes that increased availability and the spike in prescription opiate abuse are driving increased demand for the drug. Whatever the reason, heroin has become the country's single largest drug threat, according to the DOJ.
To meet the increased demand, Mexican cartels have been increasingly dealing in heroin, which fetches a higher price and is more compact and easier to conceal than other drugs, according to the DOJ, which estimates that more than 95 percent of the heroin in the western United States originates in Mexico. In Humboldt County, street-level buyers pay about $100 per gram for the drug, according to previous interviews with the Humboldt County Drug Task Force. Methamphetamine, by comparison, goes for about $80 a gram.
According to the annual report, the infamous Sinaloa Cartel — the same one headed by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and dubbed by U.S. intelligence officials as the most powerful drug trafficking organization in the world — controls the border states of Baja California and Sonora, and maintains "influence" throughout the Pacific Northwest, including in Humboldt County. "The Sinaloa Cartel leverages its expansive resources and dominance in Mexico to facilitate the smuggling and transportation of drugs throughout the United States," the report states.
That's not to say Sinaloa Cartel members are actively working the streets of Humboldt. From the report: "Mexico [cartel] operations in the United States typically take the form of a supply chain system that functions on an as-needed basis. The system relies on compartmentalized operators in the supply chain who are only aware of their own specific function, and remain unaware of all other aspects of the operation. ... Since operators in the supply chain are insulated from one another, if a transporter is arrested the transporter is easily replaced and unable to reveal the rest of the network to law enforcement."
The report describes a complex network of operators linked by family ties, all working — often obliviously — for a few cartel members who are usually stationed in "important U.S. hub cities to manage stash houses containing drug shipments and bulk cash drug proceeds." (Last year, agents in Contra Costa County seized 500 pounds of methamphetamine believed to be connected to the Sinaloa Cartel.) But the report notes that these organizations are increasingly setting up in rural and suburban areas, where police departments have fewer resources to combat large-scale trafficking operations.
If this explains how a combined 11 pounds of black tar heroin and crystal methamphetamine wound up in Humboldt County in early November, it leaves some other pretty serious questions. Is there enough demand in the local market for that quantity of product? Most of us, if we're looking, see addicts every day, but are there really that many of them?
Eureka Police Chief Andy Mills said he "can't even come close" to estimating the number of meth and heroin users locally. Sure, there's the visible set of a few hundred addicts that we all probably run into on occasion, but Mills said there are also many "seemingly normal people, for lack of better terms, chasing the dragon." But can that possibly account for the massive quantities uncovered by the Drug Task Force (one court filing that cited an informant as saying the Cabrera Drug Trafficking Organization was moving up to a pound of methamphetamine a day into the Eureka area)? Probably not, according to Mills, who spoke generally and not about the recent DTF case. "Some of it is probably bound elsewhere," he said, adding that it may be headed up the coastal corridor toward Oregon.
Sheriff's Lt. George Cavinta, who heads the local DTF, declined to comment on the force's current cases, and then later was unavailable for an interview. But Mills said when you start seeing quantities in the pounds, it's more probably more than the local market can support. "I can't talk about any specific case, but I can tell you that nobody fronts you 5 pounds of tar heroin," he said. "You have to have connections. This is more of a transnational crime problem than just a local guy slanging heroin to his friends."
In November, 2013, the DTF got a series of tips indicating that, while Cabrera was behind bars awaiting federal sentencing, his organization had retooled and continued supplying local addicts with their fixes. Through a series of interviews with confidential informants detailed in court filings, the DTF learned that Omar Cabrera had been working for his uncle, who was distributing methamphetamine in Fortuna and that, shortly after Cabrera's arrest, a few new faces had stepped in to take over the Eureka market.
The organization was making almost daily deliveries of up to a pound of methamphetamine at a time to Eureka, according to reports, where it would meet buyers in the Kmart parking lot on the south end of town, or near the Oceanview Cemetery.
By August of 2014, the DTF had identified Florencio Hernandez-Hernandez, 27, as the new alleged head of Cabrera's operation, with Cesar Licona-Carbajal, 22, allegedly acting as his runner. Both men were repeatedly spotted driving vehicles — a Ford Explorer and a Toyota Tacoma — registered to people the DTF believed to be uninvolved with the drug trafficking organization. After months of surveillance and the work of an undercover officer, the DTF came to believe the pair were working out of a trailer park on Davis Street in Rio Dell. In November, after an undercover officer arranged a large buy, the DTF made its move.
In a coordinated bust on Nov. 3, agents pulled over Licona-Carbajal in the Ford Explorer near El Pueblo Market in Eureka, and reported finding 62 grams of heroin and 84 grams of methamphetamine hidden in the vehicle's dashboard. A short time later, a separate group of agents pulled over Hernandez-Hernandez driving the Tundra north on U.S. Highway 101 in Fortuna. After searching the vehicle, agents reported finding a total of 5 pounds of crystal methamphetamine in a cardboard box in the truck bed, packaged in 1-pound increments.
With the pair in custody, the DTF then searched a pair of old double-wide travel trailers in the Rio Dell park, and reported seizing more than 5 pounds of black tar heroin — which looks like a black peanut brittle, according to the testimony of task force officer Chandler Baird — and 6 ounces of meth. Additionally, agents reported finding $30,000 in cash but, interestingly, not a single firearm was found in any of the searches, leading one to wonder how more than $400,000 in product and cash was being protected.
The pair — and a third man, 20-year-old Alfredo Santos-Goyosso — were charged by the Humboldt County District Attorney's Office in a four-count criminal complaint with possessing and transporting heroin and methamphetamine for sales, and a special enhancement alleging quantities in excess of a kilogram. Hernandez-Hernandez and Licona-Carbajal both tapped private attorneys — Russell Clanton and Jeffrey Schwartz, respectively — to represent them in the case. Public Defender Kevin Robinson was appointed to defend Santos-Goyosso.
During a preliminary hearing held Dec. 9 and Dec. 10, cracks began to form in the prosecution's case, underscoring how hard it is to effectively investigate and prosecute these types of cases and how much work lies ahead for investigators to bolster the case for trial. Under questioning from defense attorneys, Baird conceded that agents didn't fingerprint the two trailers, or the packaging on the seized drugs, to definitively tie them to the defendants. The prosecution also didn't introduce any evidence of a criminal conspiracy, meaning the drugs seized from Licona-Carbajal's vehicle couldn't be tied to Hernandez-Hernandez, and vice-versa.
At the conclusions of the two-day hearing, Humboldt County Superior Court Judge John Feeney ruled there was insufficient evidence to hold Santos-Goyosso — a passenger in Hernandez-Hernandez's care at the time of the bust — to stand trial and ordered him released from custody. Fenney similarly dismissed one of the counts facing Hernandez-Hernandez, and the special weight enhancement allegation facing Licona-Carbajal.
When the case goes to trial — during which prosecutors have to prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt — it will become even harder to prove. In the meantime, DTF agents and DA investigators will comb through a total of 11 cell phones seized in the searches for additional evidence, and will conduct further testing on the narcotics and other evidence seized.
Officers have already invested a huge amount of time in the case, and a successful prosecution will likely demand a lot more. Meanwhile, on Nov. 23, Cabrera filed a motion with the federal court seeking to have his sentence reduced, citing a recent U.S. Sentencing Commission that has resulted in the release of 6,000 federal drug offenders, some of whom were released from custody as much as three years before their sentences were due to end.
In California Superior Court, Hernandez-Hernandez and Licona-Carbajal aren't facing prison sentences in their case, which falls under California's prison realignment plan. If convicted as originally charged, the two faced a maximum sentence of 13 years, eight months in county jail.
With an insatiable local demand for narcotics, and Mexican supply lines at the ready, it's fair to wonder to what extent the DTF's case against the Cabrera Drug Trafficking Organization has disrupted the local market, or even if it did at all.