Sunday, April 12, 2009
Reeling in a Dealer of Meth and Death in Omaha
BY KARYN SPENCER AND MICHEL MARIZCO
WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER and BORDERREPORTER.COM
As diners scarfed down flapjacks and sipped from speckled coffee mugs at Denny's restaurant in Omaha, four men had something more than the menu on their minds.
Federal agents believe they were the ones who ended up with the grand slam that morning.
The deal at Denny's, they say, involved Antonio Frausto, an alleged hit man for a Mexican drug cartel. He was tied to — but never charged with — the 2004 assassination of Mexican photojournalist Gregorio Rodriguez after the murder weapon was found in Frausto's home.
Frausto, 44, and two men in their 20s were arrested and indicted in U.S. District Court in Omaha on six drug-related charges, including selling a pound of the purest methamphetamine ever seized in Omaha. The fourth man at Denny's was a DEA informant.
Frausto has been a lead regional drug trafficker for the Sinaloa Federation, the top Mexican cartel, according to the Mexican Federal Attorney General's Office.
His arrest is a significant case for the Drug Enforcement Administration office in Omaha, said L.D. Mathews, assistant special agent in charge.
"People were excited to take somebody of that magnitude off the street," he said in an interview.
Sources in at least six previous busts by the DEA have said Frausto was a cartel hit man, special agent Brent Fisher testified at a federal court hearing in Omaha.
Frausto's attorney, however, argued in court that his client, carrying identification with the Ocampo name, is not Frausto-Diaz, the reported hit man.
Lab tests showed some of the meth seized in January in Omaha was 99.6 percent pure — a level never before seen here, Fisher testified. Average purity of seized meth is around 50 percent, DEA statistics show.
It's unusual to find near-pure meth this far from the Mexican border, Mathews said. That indicates a high-level connection to a Mexican "superlab," where meth is produced in mass quantity, FBI supervisory special agent Daniel Clegg said in an interview. He was stationed in Mexico for four years.
In the Frausto case, "the dope is hot off the assembly line," assistant U.S. attorney Robert Sigler said in court.
On the Web: Nebraska drug fact sheet Mexican cartels have taken over the American meth trade, once supplied by white "biker types" who manufactured small batches, Clegg said. With a lack of regulation and access to large quantities of chemical ingredients, the cartels have built labs that produce large amounts of high-quality drugs, he said. They are commercial-style operations in warehouses that produce 10 to 20 pounds per batch, Mathews said.
The Mexican organizations supply the bulk of drugs in the Omaha area, which local street gangs sell in small amounts to users, according to the National Drug Intelligence Center. Interstates 29 and 80 provide easy routes to major cities that serve as drug distribution hubs.
During a recent visit to pave the way for President Barack Obama's scheduled trip to Mexico this week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton blamed Americans' appetite for narcotics for escalating Mexican drug wars. The U.S. administration vowed to give more money and manpower to secure the border and fight cartels.
They will be fighting a well-established trade.
Sinaloa, whose history of narcotics dates to 19th century Chinese farmers growing opium in the hills of the Sierra Madre, is Mexico's most violent state. It is home to the Sinaloa Federation, the most powerful cartel in the Western Hemisphere, and the Juárez Cartel, which controls roughly half the Texas and Arizona smuggling corridors.
The capital, Culiacán, averages five homicides a day as the two cartels engage in a turf war for control of smuggling routes to the U.S. and face government crackdowns.
Among last year's violence, five cops were shot dead in a pickup, four musicians were slain as they left a newspaper building and a drug lord's son was killed with a rocket launcher in a downtown shopping mall. Last week, the Mexican army seized more than $3 million and 30 firearms, some encrusted in gold and diamonds.
Newspaper photojournalist Rodriguez did not regularly cover Sinaloa's drug trade. Yet his killing in 2004 was among the first to establish Mexico as one of the deadliest countries in the world in which to be a journalist, second only to Iraq. Nine Mexican journalists were slain in a string of attacks throughout the country in the next three years.
Rodriguez, 35, and his family lived in the town of Escuinapa, a quiet city where the Catholic church plaza doubles as a city center.
Rodriguez had taken his children to dinner at a small outdoor stand, according to Mexican investigative files on his murder.
After they sat at a small table and ordered sandwiches, three men approached, and a quiet argument ensued. When Rodriguez stood, one of the men pulled a gun and shot him five times. As the men walked away, Rodriguez's daughter ran screaming for help, and his son fell on top of his father's body.
Within days, federal and state police converged on Frausto's swank home in Escuinapa, recovering a gun that ballistics tests linked to that killing and another shooting a week earlier.
In that earlier shooting, the investigative file alleges that Frausto and three other men assaulted a doctor, threatening him with a 9 mm handgun after he refused to treat one of the men's injuries. One of them shot the doctor's wife. The gunmen's Jeep Cherokee also was found at Frausto's home.
A newspaper publisher said in Mexican news reports that Rodriguez had been killed because he inadvertently photographed the city police chief at Frausto's home during a party.
Last year, the police chief was sentenced to 11 years in prison for complicity in the murder and thwarting the state police investigation, including ordering the crime scene to be washed with buckets of water.
Two other men also went to prison for the murder, but Frausto was never charged.
In Omaha, the magistrate judge would not allow the prosecution to use Mexican newspaper articles connecting Frausto to the assassination as evidence. Frausto's attorney said those claims were irrelevant to the drug charges.
Frausto has not been tied to any local killings, Mathews said.
Mexican drug rings have been linked to several Omaha murders.
In a particularly gruesome case, Omaha residents Dale Giles and Charmar Brown executed three men from Arizona and Colorado and set their bodies on fire in 2005 to avoid paying for 3,000 pounds of marijuana worth an estimated $3 million.
In 2004, Omaha resident Jesse Gutierrez tried to have his uncle killed to get out of a marijuana debt, but gunmen missed the intended target and killed two Arizona residents in the car with the uncle.
In Frausto's pending case, he allegedly bragged about his smuggling prowess as he sat among the teal green booths and adobe-colored tabletops of Omaha's Denny's at South 84th Street and Interstate 80.
According to testimony by agent Fisher and an interview with Mathews:
An informant who had been working with the DEA in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, made arrangements by phone with Frausto to buy a pound of methamphetamine Jan. 8 for $24,000 in Omaha.
Frausto travels to Omaha to handle transactions of this size, Mathews said. Both co-defendants have listed Council Bluffs addresses during previous minor arrests dating back to 2006.
Agents tailed Frausto's co-defendants as they left a brick ranch-style house near 38th and Cuming Streets, just north of historic Gold Coast mansions, and delivered the drugs to a Motel 6 near 107th and L Streets.
The four men met Jan. 18 at Denny's for a larger deal.
After Frausto's two associates left, Frausto chatted in Spanish about his line of work.
Frausto asked the buyer if he had good connections in the Midwest, places like Chicago and Detroit, saying he could get all the drugs he wanted. He said he moved multiple loads a day across the Mexican border, mentioning 32 kilos of cocaine and 25 pounds of meth daily.
As Frausto talked for more than an hour, a recording device secretly captured the conversation.
He was arrested when he left the restaurant about 11:15 a.m. His co-defendants were arrested with a bag containing four pounds of meth outside a Council Bluffs apartment.
Officers who searched the Omaha house found Frausto's wife there, although she has not been charged. They seized a 9 mm pistol and $60,000, including $23,500 traced to the previous drug buy.
In court, lawyers said Frausto is a legal immigrant who lives in Phoenix and sells cars. He told federal officials that he travels to Mexico every six months to see his doctor.
Frausto and his co-defendants remain in jail in Council Bluffs, awaiting trial and facing up to life in prison if convicted of the six drug-related federal charges.
More than 1,500 miles away in Escuinapa, the photographer's widow remains cautious.
"We'll just have to see if he was involved in my husband's murder," Maria Teresa Gonzalez said last week. "I really don't want to say much more than that. You know how it is here."
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