A red flag went up Oct. 17 when Placido Villa Luna crossed the border at the Lukeville Port of Entry, prompting his arrest and the eventual indictment of 20 suspected members of a marijuana-smuggling organization linked to the Sinaloa Cartel.
Villa Luna, a 41-year-old Mexican citizen, was the main target of a sprawling federal investigation of the Los Terrones smuggling organization, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Tucson. When Villa Luna, who was traveling with his wife and his sister-in-law, used his Border Crossing Card at Lukeville, Homeland Security Investigations agents responded to the port of entry and arrested him on drug-smuggling charges.
Villa Luna is accused of running the Terrones organization with his brother Nicolas from Caborca, Sonora, a major smuggling hub about 100 miles southwest of Sasabe, HSI agents wrote in search warrant affidavits. The Nov. 15 grand jury indictment charged Villa Luna and 19 suspected members of the Terrones cell with smuggling 2,600 pounds of marijuana in 17 incidents from March 2016 to June 2017. Nicolas Villa Luna was not among those indicted.
The indictment came after federal agents spent more than a year tracking footprints from Mexico to houses on the Tohono O’odham reservation, watching houses in Phoenix, following vehicles in Tempe, seizing cellphones from suspected smugglers at Border Patrol checkpoints and recording phone calls as marijuana shipments were arranged, according to court documents.
The smuggling routes used by the Terrones organization, which HSI officials said is a cell of the Sinaloa Cartel, stretched from Caborca to the international border, then through the Tohono O’odham Reservation and north to the Phoenix area, where the marijuana is distributed throughout the United States.
Villa Luna was charged with 18 counts of drug smuggling and money laundering in the indictment, which also included the suspected main money launderer for Los Terrones in Avondale, stash-house operators on the O’odham reservation, load drivers, recruiters and smuggling coordinators.
Search warrant affidavits and criminal complaints filed in the sprawling investigation provide a rare look inside a smuggling organization.
After marijuana bales arrived in Caborca, backpackers hauled the marijuana across the international border and delivered it to Pisinemo, a village about 20 miles north of the border, and other villages on the reservation, HSI agents wrote in affidavits.
The marijuana stayed hidden in stash houses until a driver was hired to take it through or around Border Patrol checkpoints and deliver it to the Phoenix area. Several drivers told agents they were paid $650 to $1,000 for each bale of marijuana they delivered to Phoenix.
The most common path for drivers was through remote federal routes on the reservation that lead to Arizona City and Casa Grande. But in at least one case, drivers connected with Interstate 10 near Tucson.
After arriving in the Phoenix area, drivers delivered the marijuana to apartments and houses or they contacted fellow smugglers and switched vehicles in parking lots of restaurants, shopping centers or apartment complexes.
and stash houses
While Villa Luna’s role was to oversee the smuggling and sale of the marijuana, Enrique Quintero Cecena was the cell’s main money launderer who made sure drivers were paid and the Caborca-side of the cell received its share of marijuana sales, HSI agents wrote in search warrant affidavits.
A month after Villa Luna was arrested in Lukeville, HSI agents broke down the door of Quintero Cecena’s home in Avondale and arrested him on his living-room floor, court records show. Agents seized six cellphones, multiple debit cards, vehicle titles, receipts, ledgers and other financial documents from Quintero Cecena’s house.
One of Quintero Cecena’s roles was to send couriers to pick up money withdrawn from the cell’s various bank accounts, agents wrote. Three electronic vehicle trackers were found in his house.
Another suspected high-level member of the cell was Susana Leon Quintero, who faces 17 counts of drug smuggling and money laundering. Agents said she coordinated the drivers who picked up the marijuana loads from stash houses.
Leon Quintero told agents she was in constant contact with drivers as they moved the marijuana from a stash house, through Border Patrol checkpoints and finally to delivery in the Phoenix area.
The role of Shane Havier, who faces eight counts of drug smuggling, was to recruit other members of the O’odham Nation to stash and transport marijuana, according to HSI agents.
Organizing the stash houses on the reservation was the responsibility of Sabrina Lorenzo, according to agents. When Timothy Garcia, who faces five counts of drug smuggling, received marijuana loads at the stash house he ran in Pisinemo, he would contact Lorenzo to arrange pickup of the loads, agents wrote.
The remaining 14 people indicted were charged in connection with individual smuggling incidents, court records show. HSI officials said the Terrones cell could contain hundreds of other members, when all drivers, guides, and backpackers are included.
The Oct. 17 arrest of Villa Luna was based on a series of recorded phone calls in April in which Villa Luna arranged a shipment of marijuana bales stamped with blue flowers from the O’odham Reservation to the Phoenix area, according to an Oct. 18 criminal complaint.
Agents seized the 230-pound marijuana load on April 27 and arrested four people.
In subsequent phone calls, Villa Luna discussed the arrests and questioned whether the load was stolen.
In the April 27 bust, agents learned a blue Dodge Durango loaded with marijuana was heading north on I-10 near the Cortaro Road exit northwest of Tucson, according to an April 28 criminal complaint. Agents followed the vehicle, also using an “aerial surveillance platform” to track it.
The driver of the Durango drove to a shopping center in Phoenix.
An hour later, a Jeep Cherokee and a Nissan Maxima parked near the Durango. The driver of the Durango walked away and a passenger in the Maxima got out and took the wheel of the Durango.
Agents followed the Durango to a Tempe apartment occupied by Daniel Madrigal Ramos, 50, and Jacqueline Ledezma Campos, 37. Two men unloaded several bales of marijuana from the Durango and took them into the apartment, agents said.
The Durango then headed to a McDonald’s restaurant, where the driver left it in the parking lot. An hour later, it was picked up by the occupants of two other vehicles.
The three vehicles left the McDonald’s with HSI agents following them. Minutes later, one drove through a stop sign and fled, another stopped in the road to block agents, and the driver of the Durango pulled into a cul-de-sac, got out and started walking away.
Agents arrested the occupants of two of the vehicles and seized the marijuana in the apartment and the Durango.
Affidavits filed by HSI agents also describe a June 4 text message exchange between Villa Luna and an unidentified smuggler in which they arranged payment to a driver for hauling marijuana.
Villa Luna texted he would have to wait for Quintero Cecena to provide money for a previous sale of marijuana so Villa Luna would know how much he could pay the driver.
After several hours of waiting, the unidentified smuggler texted a sad-face emoji to Villa Luna, who responded a few minutes later to wrap up the deal.
A few days later, the unidentified smuggler met with Quintero Cecena at a phone store in Phoenix. Quintero Cecena brought $4,000 for the smuggler and $3,500 for the O’odham members who drove previous loads.
The issue of paying drivers came up again in a June 7 recorded phone call when Havier refused to drive a load of marijuana that he had stashed on the reservation until he was paid for driving a previous load.
Also in June, Border Patrol agents followed footprints left by backpackers to a group of houses in Pisinemo. They and HSI agents searched one of the houses. The search didn’t turn up any marijuana, but agents saw a familiar red Chevrolet Suburban parked in a nearby driveway.
The Suburban had been seen in the same driveway an hour before Fabian Monte was busted May 22 driving the Suburban through a Border Patrol checkpoint on Federal Route 15 with 100 pounds of marijuana. The house where the Suburban was parked belonged to Lorenzo, agents wrote.
Madrigal Ramos pleaded guilty Nov. 28 to his role in the April 27 smuggling incident and Ledezma Campos pleaded guilty Dec. 13, according to court records.
Villa Luna’s trial is scheduled for April. Trials for the rest of the people in the indictment are scheduled for January.