Drug War Cowboys

In the drug trade, the Sinaloan Cowboys are said to be the kings of the stone-cold killers.

In fact, though, when the Sinaloans need an unsavory hit, they call the hillbillies from Michoacán.

"The guys from Michoacán are known in Sinaloa for not losing any sleep over anything," says a DEA agent who has worked in the region. "They are the ones known for being the really terrible bad-asses."

The agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration might not have tumbled to the Michoacán factor if it weren't for the 1994 killing of a DEA agent in Glendale, Arizona.

The murder of undercover agent Richard Fass during a drug sting triggered a six-year manhunt through Mexico for Agustin Vasquez-Mendoza, who the DEA believes masterminded the killing. Fass was attempting to buy 22 pounds of methamphetamines from two associates of Vasquez when, allegedly under Vasquez's orders, the two robbed and shot the agent seven times.

The manhunt ended in July with the capture of Vasquez at a phone booth in Tehuacán, Puebla. For the past six months, Vasquez has been sitting in a jail outside Mexico City, fighting his extradition to Phoenix.

That fight should be nearly over. A Mexican federal judge is expected to rule December 21 on Vasquez's final appeal. He'll either decide the case needs further review or, as DEA officials hope, release Vasquez to the DEA for transport to Sky Harbor Airport.

"It would be a wonderful Christmas present for the Fass family," says DEA special agent Jim Molesa. "We're hopeful, but we also know these things can drag on."

Besides finally snagging Vasquez, the DEA manhunt opened a stream of intelligence about drug operations in the rugged mountains surrounding Apatzingan, Michoacán, an area the DEA now believes is one of the wellsprings of America's burgeoning meth problem. And it's a stream of information the DEA hopes to keep flowing long beyond the extradition of Vasquez.

"As we were looking for Agustin, we began seeing these 100-pound shipments of ephedrine coming into Apatzingan and 100-pound shipments of meth coming out of the mountains," says the Phoenix-based DEA agent who led the hunt for the fugitive. "At the same time, we were hearing about all these Michoacán license plates coming up in drug investigations around the United States.

"Because of Agustin, we were in a region neither the DEA nor the [Federales] would have been in. And because of that, we believe we got a jump on fighting the Mexican meth trade."

DEA agents attribute the arrests of more than three dozen fugitives in Mexico and the United States to the Vasquez hunt.

The lead DEA agent, who asked not to be identified for safety reasons, likely will be returning to Michoacán to work with Mexican federal and state police in their investigations of the meth trade.

"We have a positive relationship there and there is so much work left to do," the agent says. "We just hope the cooperation can continue."

For sure, the relationship between the DEA and the Mexican government in the hunt for Vasquez has not always been positive. The investigation was clouded with numerous accusations of human-rights violations, particularly by Vasquez-Mendoza's large family. The Mexican government pulled back support from the DEA several times. And frequent assassinations of local police officials who helped the DEA began eroding the will of local law enforcement. DEA agents were sometimes not allowed to carry firearms in the region, known for its virulent drug trade, chaotic clan politics and the casual ferocity of its violence.

The hunt began in a Glendale strip mall, where Richard Fass, a 37-year-old father of four working his last day as a DEA agent in Phoenix, met two men for a meth buy. Instead of a sale, though, the supposed dealers apparently planned a robbery and execution. The two men opened fire on Fass. Fass fired back, wounding one man, but was then hit by a fusillade of bullets.

Juan Rubio Vasquez was chased down by officers near the scene. Agustin Cordova-Cuevas fled in a car but was stopped and arrested. He had a bullet wound in his side.

But the alleged mastermind of the plan, Vasquez, made it out of Phoenix, into Mexico and on toward the mountains of Michoacán. U.S. and Mexican authorities spent the next six years looking for him.

Police interrogated members of Vasquez's expansive family and were accused of myriad human-rights violations.

Death threats began flowing into the Apatzingan office of the federal judicial police. Several police throughout the region were assassinated. Police were accused of beating witnesses and hanging them from hovering helicopters to extract information.

A Mexican human rights group investigated and found no wrongdoing.

In 1998, the FBI put Vasquez on its 10 Most Wanted List, the reward was raised to $2.2 million and federal officials began a media blitz to generate leads.

Six DEA agents and four Mexican federal agents were assigned full-time to the manhunt.

Mexican officials began making arrests throughout Michoacán of suspected meth makers and runners. More accusations of human-rights violations followed.

As the investigation intensified, Mexican and U.S. agents began to understand the extent of Michoacán's rule in the U.S. meth trade. Massive amounts of ephedrine were being flown into Apatzingan and then transported into remote areas, areas Mexican state and federal police shy away from. The ephedrine was being cooked in mountain labs, then brought back to Apatzingan for transport to the United States.

Michoacán drug runners were being apprehended throughout the United States, particularly in the rural Midwest and the West Coast. Six-figure money wires to Michoacán were coming from as far north as Yakima, Washington.

"All the biggest wires from some of these cities on the West Coast were flowing into Michoacán," the agent says. "And this wasn't money back from [people working] construction to their family. This was big money."

In 1999, Mexican and U.S. agents were getting numerous tips that Vasquez had fled Michoacán for Compeche. They learned, too, that he had a new wife.

Federales and DEA agents chased Vasquez through Compeche into Puebla. There, they learned that Vasquez was making regular phone calls from a telephone booth to his wife's family.

Using high-tech surveillance equipment, DEA officials pinpointed the phone booth from which the couple was making calls. They staked out the booth and, a few days later when Vasquez and his wife showed up to make another call, agents nabbed him.

Vasquez was flown to Mexico City to verify he was the correct suspect. Once he was identified, U.S. officials in Arizona and Washington began flooding Mexican officials with what they hoped was the evidence and paperwork necessary to get Vasquez extradited.

For any hope of extradition, U.S. officials had to agree that they would not seek the death penalty, which is not allowed under Mexican law. Mexico's foreign minister also has not allowed Vasquez to face a conspiracy murder charge and aggravated assault charges that American prosecutors had filed against him.

Still, seven counts remain, including first-degree murder.

"We've had some real good cooperation with a number of Mexican prosecutors," says Tom Hannis, an assistant U.S. attorney who is handling the case.

On November 30, Vasquez filed his last appeal in an attempt to prevent extradition. If that appeal is denied, Vasquez could be on a plane to Phoenix.

That's a big could, though, according to U.S. attorneys and DEA officials.

"We could be in limbo again, too," the assistant U.S. attorney says, referring to the convoluted appeals process that could continue at the judge's whim.

If and when Vasquez arrives in Phoenix, he will be turned over to Glendale police and then delivered for his initial appearance in Maricopa County court. He then probably will be transferred to Maricopa County Jail.

Expect a media blitz.

"It's a big deal, and once he comes, we're going to spread the word," Molesa says. "So many people in several different agencies in the U.S. and Mexico worked so many long, dangerous hours on this case. They deserve a little appreciation for a job well done."