The estate of Victor Emilio Cazare

The estate of Victor Emilio Cazares a top lieutenant in the Sinaloa drug cartel near Culliacan, Sinaloa, Mexico. During the years he was at large he surgically changed his facial appearance. Cazares is wanted for smuggling tons of marijuana and cocaine into the U.S. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times) (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times / September 22, 2009)

Reporting from Calexico, Calif., and Badiraguato, Mexico - The towering iron gates opened onto a palm-lined driveway that led past the family church, a twisting water slide and two man-made lakes, one stocked with fish, the other with jet skis.

With its soaring twin bell towers, each topped by a cross, the estate in the emerald hills outside Culiacan, Mexico, had an almost surreal grandeur. It reminded Carlos "Charlie" Cuevas of Disneyland, without the smiles.

Cuevas, a drug trafficker from Calexico, Calif., had been summoned there by Victor Emilio Cazares, allegedly a top lieutenant in the Sinaloa cartel. Cazares was said to be upset by a rash of recent drug seizures by U.S. authorities.

In one of them, police had raided a stash house in Paramount, southeast of Los Angeles, and confiscated nearly 455 pounds of cocaine, worth about $3.3 million.

Cuevas had come under suspicion, and not only because he handled the shipment. Raised in California, he was an outsider. He couldn't claim Sinaloan roots. The boss and his heavily armed cronies would make fun of his American-accented Spanish and call him a derogatory term for Mexican Americans.

Cuevas' drivers and lookouts were also suspect. He had been ordered to bring them to Mexico for questioning. He hadn't.

Cuevas feared his boss — he'd guzzle Pepto-Bismol for his frequent gut eruptions — but this time he stood firm.

"I'm so sure it's not one of my guys that you can kill me if it's one of them," Cuevas said.

In the shadows

The confrontation reflected the frustrations of a cartel in confusion. Cocaine shipments were being seized all over the U.S.: by New Jersey and New York police, California Highway Patrol officers, Oklahoma state troopers and others. The array of agencies was a cover for the main force behind most of the busts: the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Cazares didn't know it, but he was a top target in one of the largest DEA investigations ever of a Mexican organized crime group. Operation Imperial Emperor was peeling back layers of a drug distribution ring with hundreds of truckers, packers, money couriers and stash house operators across the U.S.

Local police made arrests while DEA agents stayed in the shadows, piecing together evidence and listening to cellphone chatter.

Keeping the DEA's involvement quiet was key.

A major trafficking suspect like Cazares didn't sweat local busts, but a federal investigation would put him on alert. Wiretaps would go silent, evidence would disappear, suspects would flee.

The DEA was allowing the drug pipeline to continue running so agents could expand their target list. There would be busts and seizures of drugs and money, but no knockout punch.

The government was trying to bleed the organization to death.

It wouldn't be easy. The cocaine economy gushed millions of dollars a week in revenue for a reputed kingpin like Cazares, whose contacts reached from Colombia to the South Bronx. Cocaine purchased from South American producers for about $3,600 a pound was sold for $7,200 in Los Angeles and $9,000 in New York.

The biggest expense was shipping. Cuevas earned about $250 a pound moving the cocaine across the U.S.-Mexico border to distribution hubs in the Los Angeles area.

Trucking cells charged as little as $250 a pound for shipments to the East Coast. By air, a pilot from Carlsbad, John Charles Ward, charged $450 per pound.

The Sinaloa cartel bosses, unlike the Colombian traffickers of the past, didn't control the entire distribution system. Cazares allegedly partnered with local criminal groups — Orange County gang members, Italian Canadian mobsters, Dominicans in the Northeast — to get the drugs to users.