"For instance, during this investigation, they would occasionally talk about killing somebody. We had to deal with that. We couldn't let that happen. So Michael and the investigators had to think of strategies to ensure that nobody was endangered. Because we had to intercede if that was going to go forward. Even if it were a bad guy. We can't allow anything like that to happen."
"We faced that several times," says Michael. "We had to come up with options, and one of the options was taking action, which would mean ending the investigation. It never came to that. But lots of times our undercover agents were told that such and such a person was going to be killed. So we investigated to find out whether there was any possibility of that happening, and if so, what action we were prepared to take to prevent it from happening.
"There were many instances where undercover agents had a stigma [in their relationship with the Sandoval group] because of the fact that they were dealing with people who've known each other for years and years. The main [undercover agent] was accused at one time of being maybe with the government. We had to overcome that. We'd brainstorm. We overcame it with the overall dynamics of the case."
According to U.S. Attorney Padden, Sandoval was the most dangerous of bosses.
"Humberto Barre Silva spoke specifically about some of the methods of violence that were used. He talked about the exceptionally cruel ways that they used to dispose of bodies and to kill people. He discussed an industrial-sized meat grinder-type machine that they had in Tijuana. They threw people into it and referred to the [resulting] substance as 'pozole,' pozole being a Mexican soup dish that has a broth and meat chunks in it. When they killed somebody they would take the person's wallet and throw it on the lawn or on the porch of the victim's family to send a message."
Michael confirms his colleague's horrific tale. "If someone screwed up, but had been a loyal soldier, they would do him a favor by killing him first, before throwing him in. But for the worst, people who had betrayed them, they would feed them in alive. They would start feet first. They would taunt them.... These were not nice people."
"Sergio Sandoval has admitted to undercover agents that he was a killer for the organization," Padden told the court May 21. "He [boasted] that when he killed somebody, or when he took on a contract, that person would never be found again."
In this atmosphere, says Michael, the tension among his actors was huge. "The stress on the agents, and particularly the [principal] undercover agent, was unbelievable. So we met with him on a weekly basis, just to keep his sanity. Also, there was stress on the other agents, because even though they may not have been exposed to the day-to-day danger, they lived it because their commitment level was such. It was unbelievable."
Michael knew he was getting somewhere when his "star" agent reported back, according to Padden in court records, conversations with Sergio Sandoval himself.
"In December, when [Sandoval] had [a] lengthy meeting with the undercover agents and the cooperating sources, he talked about introducing [them] to leaders within the Arellano-Félix organization, including one of the Arellano-Félix brothers or Ismael Higuera Guerrero [a senior lieutenant in the Arellano Félix organization]."
Padden says Sandoval also loved the fact that in the U.S. there were no requirements to file flight plans for helicopters, and helicopters could land anywhere, as long as the landowner gave permission. "[He] thought the FBI or aviation authorities couldn't touch them," Padden said in court.
Walter's helicopter, Sandoval told the agent, moved drugs and money, at one point flying $2 million in $20 bills in the helicopter. Drugs -- the '65 Huey could carry four tons of dope -- were often delivered to Hemet Valley Thoroughbred Farm, where Sandoval's brother, codefendant Ernesto Sandoval, was the foreman. They thought this plan was foolproof, says Padden; nobody could stop them from landing.
Yet it was a mid-March flight to Hemet that started the unraveling of Sandoval's operation. That flight, which set out from El Cajon's Gillespie Field, Ronnie Walter's home base, contained FBI-supplied sham cocaine.
Today, FBI's Mefford couldn't be happier. "Many times we saw this [operation on the point of collapse], and we had to sit down and brainstorm, and that's what makes you the better chess player. Sometimes you make a move you think is brilliant, and then your counterpart makes another move that puts you in check, and you don't know where he came from, and then, just when you think it's all over, you come up with another brilliant move.... That's what makes it exhilarating and exciting. When you do the endgame and put him in checkmate, then you know you're the better player.
"I want to emphasize that this was a joint investigation with DEA, FBI, Chula Vista Police Department, IRS, and INS. We brought together investigators from all these agencies [partly because] our intention was to target the organization. Not just individuals."
Mr. Sandoval, Michael believes, is looking at 20 years. "He's a CCE, continuing criminal enterprise, which carries that penalty for all the subjects involved. So ultimately we feel that we have a very, very strong case."
But what kind of a dent does this put in the Arellano Félix brothers' influence in San Diego? Probably not that big, acknowledges Michael. "It's pervasive. But I do think we do have an impact. This case highlights the fact that we're not out of the game."