Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
It was big news last month when federal and state agents began sweeping up more than 20 accused members of a Mexican cartel drug-trafficking organization in El Paso, Sunland Park, Belen and Albuquerque.
But the trafficker calling the shots for the operation, Luis Angel Briseño-Lopez, was in Ciudad Juárez at the time – safely beyond the reach of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
The U.S. raids were the culmination of a 16-month investigation in which federal agents listened to hundreds of hours of cellphone conversations and recorded text messages between Briseño’s underlings, leading to the seizure of more than 60 pounds of heroin, more than 120 pounds of methamphetamine and 34 pounds of cocaine from his organization.
The cocaine alone was valued at more than $2 million.
The drugs, mostly confiscated during the course of the investigation and some during the raids, were destined for distribution in New Mexico, Texas, Kansas, Kentucky and Illinois.
And at the center of the web was Briseño, who authorities say has connections to the Sinaloa Cartel and drug traffickers across the United States.
For Briseño, 30, it has been a rapid rise from two-bit courier to major trafficker with cartel ties and his own organization.
Seven years ago, he was driving his mother from Juárez to El Paso so she could make cocaine deliveries for another drug organization.
After the DEA took down that organization, Briseño spent less than four years in a U.S. prison and was deported to Mexico, where he began using prison and family contacts to begin building his own smuggling organization.
Federal agents believe the drugs Briseño’s group was smuggling came from the Sinaloa Cartel in western Mexico and not the Juárez Cartel. Control of the Juárez smuggling corridor has been the source of a bloody feud between the two cartels for years, leading to thousands of killings.
Federal agents say that such a rapid rise from low-level courier to major trafficker is not unusual, given the unsettled nature of the Juárez smuggling corridor.
Briseño also made strong contacts on both sides of the border during his time in the U.S. prison system. Those connections, agents say, now count for more than age and experience in the pressure cooker of the Mexican drug trade.
Luis Briseño first came to the attention of federal law enforcement in June 2010 when he was arrested driving across from Juárez into El Paso with his mother, Martina Lopez de Briseño.
They were stopped and searched at the border crossing by Customs Border Protection officers who found that mom had six kilograms of cocaine strapped around her waist.
Both were indicted as part of much larger smuggling organization, headed by Hortencia Lozano de Beltran, who had more than 20 people moving drugs across the border into El Paso, then into Albuquerque and other cities like Atlanta.
Lozano de Beltran admitted that she was the middle link in a chain of drug distribution, primarily cocaine and marijuana, for three suppliers in Ciudad Juárez, identified in court filings only as “Jimmy,” “Pete,” and “Vero.”
She operated out of El Paso, but received delivery instructions from the suppliers in Ciudad Juárez. She would then ensure that the drugs from the suppliers were delivered to dealers in various cities in the United States.
While Lozano de Beltran said she was only a transporter with employees, she said Martina Lopez de Briseño was directly employed by Mexican narcotics suppliers “Jimmy” and “Pete” to deliver drugs to Lozano de Beltran and others.
Both Briseño and his mother admitted making numerous trips into El Paso and delivering five kilograms of cocaine during each border crossing in the months before their arrests in 2010. But they didn’t identify who they were working for in any court filings.
In other words, they didn’t give anything up.
Briseño was sentenced to four years and 10 months, and his mother was sentenced to seven years in federal prison.
Both were ordered deported immediately at the completion of their prison terms.
Early in 2016, the organization Luis Briseño ran was targeted by Drug Enforcement Administration agents in Las Cruces.
But, at that time, neither Briseño nor the agents knew he was a target – and the way law enforcement finally learned he was the man moving the controls is something of an “accidental tourist” story.
Agents were investigating Alonso Aguilar, who had recruited a law enforcement informant and later an undercover agent as possible couriers.
But Aguilar was arrested by another agency when drugs were found in his truck. He agreed to cooperate with federal agents, but disappeared.
In February, the agents got a bit of luck when one of Aguilar’s couriers was stopped near Las Cruces with more than $15,300 in her truck.
The courier told them she thought Aguilar was dead and that her boyfriend, Joshua Carmona, 23, of El Paso, had arranged for her to transport the money she said was from a drug deal in Kentucky.
Agents ultimately obtained a wiretap on Carmona’s cellphone, and it became clear that a person named Luis, last name unknown, was both the source of supply of the drugs and was directing Carmona’s delivery operation.
The agents were able to identify the delivery points in and around Albuquerque and another in Big Springs, Texas.
Some of the drugs stayed in the local communities. The rest was shipped to Kentucky, Kansas and Ohio.
In July 2016, agents identified Luis as Luis Briseño.
According to court records, Briseño was overheard giving Carmona specific instructions on delivering drugs to and picking up money from dealers in Albuquerque and elsewhere.
During the summer, Briseño arranged for Carmona to pick up a semi-automatic rifle from a drug dealer. The weapon was sent to Albuquerque and was seized when agents served search warrants while rounding up members of Briseño’s organization. Agents used court-ordered tracking devices on couriers’ cars and pickup trucks and more court orders to physically track different cellphones.
That gave agents enough information to observe suspected drug deliveries, but there were times the agents couldn’t seize the drugs without revealing the extent of the investigation.
Sometimes, they were able to work around the problem.
In November 2016, State Police – tipped off that two cars driven by Briseño’s drug couriers were on their way north – made routine traffic stops of both cars south of Belen. After getting each courier’s consent, police searched the cars and found more than 10 pounds of methamphetamine and six pounds of heroin wrapped in black tape.
Other stops were made by Border Patrol agents at checkpoints on I-25, and more drugs were seized.
In late April, agents from federal and local law enforcement were able to round up most of Briseño’s dealers and couriers.
Briseño, however, remains a fugitive and is believed to be living in Ciudad Juárez.
As one law enforcement official observed, Briseño could be back in business, working for another cartel, or be “six feet under for having lost all that dope.”