Seized Cell Phones Reveal Extent of Sinaloa Brother-Sister Cartel Cell in San Diego, Feds Say
Federal Courthouse building in downtown San Diego. (San Diego Union-Tribune)
SAN DIEGO (Tribune News Service) — A year ago, the alleged leader of a Sinaloa cartel cell was arrested at a private airport outside Boston, and a month later a huge cache of drugs , cash and ammunition was seized from a trucking yard in Otay Mesa. .
The bust yielded a high-profile suspect and a stash worth millions of dollars. But perhaps the most valuable assets of the whole operation were the cell phones, nearly 40 of them.
The seized phones provided federal investigators with a window into the inner workings of the Valenzuela drug trafficking organization, allegedly headed by Jorge Valenzuela Valenzuela, and led to recent charges against dozens of others, including his sister, a restaurateur from Chula Vista.
Wuendi Valenzuela Valenzuela, 37, is named as the main defendant in an indictment against 30 people that alleges a large-scale conspiracy to traffic cocaine into the United States, send American weapons and ammunition to Mexico and launder the regime’s illicit profits, according to the charges unsealed last month in federal court in San Diego.
The Valenzuelas have pleaded not guilty and are being held without bond.
The siblings are accused of filling the void left by another brother, Luis Gabriel Valenzuela Valenzuela, who was the logistical and financial operator of a money laundering ring for Sinaloa kingpin Ismael ‘El Mayo’ Zambada.
The brother, who went by the nickname Julian Grimaldi Paredes, was shot dead in 2020 in Jalisco, Mexico. Two years earlier, he had escaped from a prison in Sinaloa, walking out the front door disguised as a prison guard. He had been held there on charges related to an ambush of a military convoy in which five soldiers were killed in 2016.
A few months after the brother’s murder, his nephew was shot and killed in a Mexico City hotel.
The bloodshed is believed to be part of the ongoing power struggle against the weakened Sinaloa Cartel. A faction of Zambada loyalists, 74, are battling internally with the sons of infamous co-leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who is serving a life sentence in the United States. Another rival organization, Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, forms the third front as it violently fights for control.
The Valenzuela cell investigation is part of a decade-long investigation into the Sinaloa Cartel and its ties to San Diego.
Jorge, the alleged cell boss, was under surveillance on October 15, 2020, when he and an associate were seen preparing to board a private jet in Long Beach with eight suitcases, according to a complaint. The pilot peeked into one of the suitcases and found what appeared to be cellophane-wrapped bricks of drugs.
Two weeks later, Jorge was arrested at the Boston-area airport after a flight from San Diego.
Meanwhile, federal agents were monitoring an Otay Mesa truck yard linked to Jorge’s cross-border trucking businesses. On Nov. 20, 2020, officers served a search warrant there and seized a cache that was described as the largest of its kind in the Southern California border district: $3.5 million in cash, 685 kilograms of cocaine, 24 kilograms of fentanyl, approximately 20,000 .50 caliber cartridges, 100 rifle magazines and 427 bulletproof vests, according to court records.
The ammunition – obtained from a company in Oregon – and body armor were packed and loaded into a tractor-trailer bound for Mexico, investigators said.
Agents from the United States Drug Enforcement Administration and Homeland Security Investigations also seized 24 cell phones during the warehouse operation, adding to the 15 that were taken from Jorge during his arrest at the ‘airport.
Jorge ran the business largely from Mexico and San Diego communicating through encrypted messaging apps such as Threema and WhatsApp, and the tens of thousands of messages, photos, voice memos and videos recovered from the devices helped to move the case forward, investigators say.
Evidence revealed that Jorge’s sister acted as his “right hand man”, Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Sutton said during a November hearing arguing for his detention. “His main role in the organization was to protect and take care of the financial aspect,” Sutton said.
Wuendi is accused of receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash from both drug and gun trafficking, then driving it herself to Mexico, where it would be used to pay off corrupt officials of the Mexican government and members of the organization, Sutton said. “She is very trustworthy,” he added.
Officers had planned to search her Chula Vista home, but had to move faster than expected when surveillance – including footage from a mast camera pointed at her home – indicated that she and her husband were doing their luggage and were moving, Sutton said. They feared that she would flee to Mexico.
She was arrested during a traffic check on November 2. A search of his home revealed more than $600,000 in cash, most of it in a safe buried at least 6 feet underground in the backyard, the prosecutor said.
The U.S. government is seeking the confiscation of the cash and the two-story house, along with jewelry, vehicles, and about 30 designer watches, including from Rolex, Hublot, and Jacob & Co., some of which are valued at $500. 000 and $1 million each, Suton says.
Wuendi’s attorney said she was a longtime, law-abiding Chula Vista resident and was not fleeing to Mexico, a place considered particularly dangerous for her. “Just last week she was getting threats from the same people who killed her brother,” attorney Jeremy Warren told the judge. “She has no desire to go to Mexico.”
Warren said the couple owned a Mexican-style seafood restaurant in Chula Vista and food trucks, noting that her husband came from a family of restaurateurs and they made it a success through hard work.
Wuendi is charged with conspiracy to import and distribute cocaine – although Sutton clarified that she is not suspected of personally handling the drugs – as well as conspiracy to launder money. Others are accused of purchasing firearms and ammunition from the United States and then illegally exporting them to Tijuana for use by the criminal organization, according to the indictment.
Seven of the 30 defendants in the recent indictment were arrested in San Diego; the names of the others, apparently still at large, are redacted.
©2022 The San Diego Union-Tribune.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.