Chivis Martinez Borderland Beat TYGus Courier Journal
XTON, Va. — On a near-freezing February morning, a man known as “Lalo” steered his Chevy Avalanche quietly through south-central Virginia’s forested hills and farms.
He had an 8 a.m. appointment in Axton, tucked in a rural area of roughly 6,500 people near the North Carolina border where roads are dotted with trailer parks, tiny churches, rusting pickups and abandoned barns.
It’s a place where property is cheap, cornfields and cow pastures separate many neighbors, and people tend not to pry into one another’s business.
All of which made it an ideal if unlikely waystation for the Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación, known as CJNG, Mexico’s fastest-rising drug cartel, whose U.S. footprint has grown exponentially in recent years.
A scene near the rural community of Axton, Virginia, where authorities say the Mexican drug cartel known as CJNG maintained properties to store and distribute drugs in the region.
Led by “El Mencho,” the nickname for Rubén Oseguera Cervantes, CJNG in less than a decade has become one of the largest and most powerful drug organizations in the world, known for sophisticated operations and extreme violence in Mexico, from beheadings to killing police.
It’s playing an increasing role in filling U.S. demand for super-pure meth, cocaine, heroin, fentanyl and other drugs, appearing in at least 35 states, a Courier Journal investigation found, including the Virginia countryside.
There, at a residence in Axton, authorities say Lalo met a man called “Tramposo,” the trickster. He loaded 6 kilos of cocaine, worth roughly $180,000, into his truck.
Lalo was soon headed northeast. He could have wound through remote backroads or returned to state Highway 58, a route dotted with businesses that included a strip-mall tortilla shop where authorities said drug profits were wired to Mexico.
Amid the flow of commuters, he began what he thought would be a four-hour drive that passed through Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley to Winchester, Virginia, just 75 miles from Washington, D.C.
But Lalo had no idea he was being watched.
The CJNG cartel and its backroads drug pipeline had caught the attention of federal authorities, who, in March 2019, announced they had uncovered a hidden hub of Axton-area cartel stash houses that over four years funneled a river of drugs worth tens of millions of dollars through Axton to Winchester and other mid-Atlantic states.
In a case that highlights CJNG’s deep reach into unexpected corners of small-town America, authorities said the Jalisco-based cartel had sent people to live in Axton, while CJNG shipped in at least 20 kilos of cocaine each month since 2015, along with other drugs such as marijuana it sent through the U.S. mail.
The story of how at least eight federal, state and local agencies from at least two states, including the Drug Enforcement Administration and a Virginia drug task force, conducted a more than two-year investigation to unravel strands of a CJNG-fueled trafficking web extended more than 230 miles northeast to the small-town streets of Winchester.
There, three local sisters and others were caught up with a cartel-connected associate in a scheme that authorities say involved cross-country drug runs, purchases of high-powered guns and money transfers.
“Right under your nose,” said Josiah Schiavone, who formerly ran a northwest Virginia drug task force, cartels were “operating in multi-kilo loads.” Their presence “caught our community off guard,” he said.
The Virginia case offered a glimpse into cartel operations that experts say often funnel drugs through less-scrutinized rural areas and small towns, distributing them through supply chains that can spread like rivulets.
While estimates of cartel drug flows are notoriously unreliable, federal officials have said CJNG smuggles at least 120 tons of high-purity meth and cocaine into the U.S. a year, making it a top target.
But stemming the flow of drugs from any cartel through Middle America, as the Virginia investigation showed, is like a game of whack-a-mole for federal and local authorities.
“I can assure you that within 120 hours of that investigation, the cartel in Mexico had all new houses rented and new leadership from Mexico en route,” said Jaeson Jones, a former Texas Department of Public Safety captain who spent years following the activities of drug cartels.
Law enforcement officials believe cartel associates are still around Axton and Winchester. Federal investigators will only say that the case is ongoing.
But the cartel’s presence still looms. Some residents, including some members of Axton’s small Hispanic population, speak in whispers of their suspicions over flashes of wealth, rumors of suspected fronts and a drug-related shooting of two Mexican.
When it comes to questions about the cartel in Axton or Winchester, some doors open a crack and then quickly shut. Some people are too scared to talk.
“You don’t play with the cartel,” said Ruth Houghton Mann, a relative of three Winchester sisters entangled in the cartel’s drug ring.
The sisters would soon learn just how deep CJNG’s influence goes.
“Hey, do you want to go to California?” Judith Wright’s half-sister, Vicky Houghton, asked her in a conversation recounted in court documents.
It was the summer of 2017, and the 38-year-old blonde single mother of three said she was struggling with a truant son, on-and-off work and a car transmission that had just gone out.
Vicky asked Judith if she could drive her to visit her boyfriend known as “Kiko” and “Flaco,” Spanish for “skinny.” His real name was Blas Rodríguez-Ávila, according to court documents.
“I can’t go to California. I don’t have any money,” Judith told her.
“Don’t worry about it,” Vicky told her. “I need someone to drive me that has a driver’s license, and he’s (Kiko) willing to pay for the trip.”
Judith didn’t know that authorities had been watching her two younger half-sisters, Vicky and Effie Houghton, and how close they were to men associated with a drug cartel whose name she’d never heard — CJNG.
All three sisters had grown up in Winchester, a town of 28,000, known for housing George Washington’s headquarters in the French and Indian War and for apple orchards and horse farms that have long drawn migrants looking for work.
But less than two hours from Baltimore and Washington, D.C., the town has also struggled with drugs, shifting from crack and coke-bottle home meth labs to opioid painkillers, heroin, fentanyl, and more recently, a resurgence of cocaine and “Mexican Ice” meth.
Vicky’s boyfriend, Rodríguez-Ávila, spoke little English. The two lived together in a split-level home rented by the room.
He walked with a limp from what he said was a childhood accident. Leaving a large family in Veracruz, he had crossed into the U.S. in 2014, working in Seattle before coming to Virginia. He worked as a contractor and told the sisters he also worked for a California fencing company.
In the spring of 2017, veteran DEA Special Agent Thomas Hickey became part of a drug task force that used informants to buy cocaine from people, often in small amounts, which included Vicky and Effie.
But investigators wanted to know where the drugs were coming from as they searched for larger sources of supply.
Rodríguez-Ávila, authorities alleged, was connected to the CJNG cartel. While authorities tracked calls to Mexico as part of a larger investigation, they would not say how they concluded that Rodríguez-Ávila was connected, or how closely, with CJNG.
The two men weren’t the only ones in Winchester linked to CJNG drugs.
While links to drugs from various cartels weren’t unknown in such cases, the name CJNG “was new for us when we heard it,” said Joshua Price, head of the Northwest Virginia Regional Drug and Gang Task Force.
Authorities alleged that Rodríguez-Ávila traveled to California and Texas to direct the transport of large quantities of cocaine, as much as $150,000 worth at a time, into Winchester and the region for distribution to sellers. He recruited locals to ferry drugs, purchase weapons and move cash, they said.
Effie bought a $900 AK-47 at Bear’s Pawn Shop for him. Another woman, Lisa Vasquez-Ahumada, also purchased guns and used her bank account to transfer drug-connected money.
That summer, when Vicky asked Judith if she could drive her and Vasquez-Ahumada to visit Rodríguez-Ávila in Southern California, Judith decided to go, although she said she was in the dark about any drugs. Authorities said organizers believed the women would be less vulnerable to a traffic stop.
They drove for 38 straight hours, stopping only for gas, food and once at a California truck stop to shower.
After checking into the Holiday Inn Express in Colton, California, which had a pool edged by palm trees, they went to see Rodríguez-Ávila at the fence company.
“He was laid back,” Judith said. “Nobody was talking of trafficking.”
But prosecutors say it was the first of several attempted cross-country trips Judith took for which she was paid or offered at least $2,000 to drive the car back loaded with several kilos of cocaine in hidden compartments.
Judith claims she didn’t know the real reason for the trips; others disputed that.
Still, she said she had no idea that investigators were pulling at the strands that connected her sister’s boyfriend to a network of distributors, buyers and couriers connected to other states such as Maryland and West Virginia.
For Judith, “It was too late. I was already in, hook, line and sinker.”
Henry County Sheriff Lane Perry had seen signs that something bigger was going down on his turf.
Some drug arrests seemed too large for a typical meth or heroin user, like one time when multiple kilos were found in a single car.
And there were rumors of cartels’ presence and connections to certain crimes, including the drug-related killings of two Mexican brothers in 2014, one of whom was found shot in the head in a Ford F-150 in Axton.
“We knew there was a large amount of cocaine and other drugs moving through the area,” he said, but the source often remained difficult to trace.
“Even though we tried, people wouldn’t cooperate.”
But why would major traffickers choose Axton, an unincorporated area that was little more than a smattering of gas stations and backcountry trailer parks, with a school and churches, much of it sitting in the eastern part of Henry County?
The nearest city is 13,000-resident Martinsville, known for its NASCAR speedway and a nearby collection of once-booming furniture factories. The interstate heading north is an hour’s drive.
Jones and other experts said CJNG and other cartels often use unlikely rural areas near cities for storing and distributing drugs, away from heavy policing and nosy neighbors.
Houses are cheap. Backroads, plentiful.
Cartels often maintain several houses in such areas: One for the local boss and his family, and another where the drugs come in and get cut up and distributed, there’s another to deal with the money, and another where cartel associates live, he said.
The Axton area did have an occasionally checkered past.
In 1996, a U.S. News & World Report article profiled a hamlet near Axton called Sandy Level as a hotbed of cocaine dealing and violence. A decade later, the former sheriff and other officers were indicted in a case that included selling drugs and stealing guns.
More recently, the county seat of Martinsville notched one of the nation’s highest opioid prescription rates, with one local doctor jailed for prescribing half a million doses of opioid pills in two years as patients flocked in from neighboring states.
Federal authorities in 2017 were already investigating in Axton, gathering mounting evidence.
A federal indictment filed in April 2019 accused Jose Alfredo Santacruz-Godinez and others of maintaining residences around Axton for “receiving, storing, packaging and distributing controlled substances.”
According to a separate FBI affidavit, properties connected to the case included isolated and nondescript ranch houses, single-wide mobile homes, garages and outbuildings. Some were surrounded by pine trees well away from main roads.
One document accused Santacruz-Godinez and another of using trafficking profits to purchase four properties, including a three-bedroom yellow house tucked far back on a country road that turns off Highway 58. Court records don’t detail exactly what occurred at that home.
Neighbors near one home said they never met the former residents but sometimes heard music. Realtor Angie Ancheta, who was listed as selling one of the houses for $33,000 in cash in 2017, said nothing suggested it would be named in a drug cartel investigation.
“Oh my God,” she recalled thinking when she read about the case in the local paper. “I was shocked.”
At Taylor’s Grocery & Grill along Highway 58 near several of the properties cited in the investigation, the 67-year-old owner said she wanted nothing to do with the cartel.
“I don’t want to know where they are at,” she said.
In fact, one of the properties was a three-minute walk away. An FBI affidavit shows those involved at various homes exchanged calls to set up pickups, often from Winchester, using code words for drugs, such as “little hand” for cocaine and “tooth” for money.
But the answer to “Why Axton?” isn’t clear, said Henry County Commonwealth’s Attorney Andrew Nester. “It’s very rural, it’s very remote. Maybe that’s the draw. Once you’re established, no one talks,” he said.
Surveillance is difficult. And cartel associates had “early warning systems,” which other officials declined to detail. Getting an informant trusted by a drug ring is especially difficult.
“Most anybody can buy a $20 rock of crack cocaine. But you can’t just send Joe Schmoe to go buy a kilo,” Nester said. “To get the big dealers, you have to get someone in there that these upper-level dealers trust.”
But that finally changed, Perry said, when a drug task force got an informant inside in the Axton area.
Eventually, investigators saw links stretching to Winchester, one strand of a much larger web.
On the morning of Feb. 1, 2018, DEA agent Hickey gathered with other law enforcement agencies in Winchester’s Millwood fire station.
After nearly a year of Hickey’s involvement in the investigation, which included ariel surveillance, GPS trackers on cars and wiretaps, they planned to raid at least a dozen locations including in Axton and Winchester, and the split-level house on a quiet street where Rodríguez-Ávila lived.
They believed Rodríguez-Ávila was orchestrating drug runs to Texas and California. They also had identified others in Winchester and over the state line in West Virginia who were picking up drugs in Axton.
That included one man who had made the trip to Axton to pick up kilos of cocaine, once hauling it in a 5-gallon bucket and then handing it off in Walmart bags.
About 9:30 a.m. on Feb. 1, Eduardo “Lalo” Hernandez-Sanchez, the courier who had just made the pickup from Axton, was pulled over in Boone’s Mill by police. Officers found the cocaine hidden in detergent containers.
At the house, Judith and Vasquez-Ahumada together took $12,000 in cash and loaded a suitcase into the trunk of a Jeep outside. Fearing they might flee, Hickey and the drug task force had a local police officer stop the Jeep at 10:36 a.m. in an Arby’s parking lot, near the on-ramp to Interstate 81.
Effie arrived and rushed to comfort Vicky, who was crying. Rodríguez-Ávila acted innocent, saying he was simply helping the women reach the airport to visit their boyfriends.
Meanwhile, raids hit a range of sites: an unassuming home in Stephens City, south of Winchester, and properties in and around Axton. Authorities seized drugs, weapons, cash and a transaction ledger.
“There were a lot of drugs, there was money, and weapons,” Perry told local media, though it was a drop in the bucket of what had flowed through the area.
Rodríguez-Ávila was later indicted, and Judith and her half-sisters, among others, were charged, too.
After more investigation, Virginia prosecutors earlier this year indicted 12 more people in Axton and Winchester it named as members or associates of the CJNG cartel, though some denied that connection.
Other cases remain pending, and several of those indicted are believed to have fled, including Santacruz-Godinez.
Some connected to the network had jobs at local employers, including an auto dealership. One woman, who worked at an Axton tortilla and meat shop, was charged with helping wire drug profits via money transfers. Others were charged in West Virginia.
More arrests have been connected to the case, but authorities won’t identify them as they seek cooperation and follow leads into other locations or states, likely including California. Rodríguez-Ávila declined to comment from prison.
Some suspects’ lawyers argued their clients played insignificant roles and were not connected to the cartel as prosecutors alleged.
For example, Naal-Huchin’s lawyer claimed in court filings that his client was anything but a drug kingpin, and instead lived in a low-rent apartment, drove a 2010 Chevy, and had no idea who “El Mencho” was.
“The government attempts to bolster the severity of his conduct by asserting the cocaine was ‘supplied by CJNG,'” his attorney, David Downes wrote in a court filing, calling him a low-level dealer.
Despite the arrests, experts said it’s unlikely the busts and lengthy investigation did much to slow the flow of drugs for long. And not before the communities paid a steep cost.
“Imagine the damage (the drugs) did to Virginia and the East Coast” in that time, Jones said.
The fallout from the flow of drugs has hung over Winchester.
On a day in September, a handful of women battling drug addiction sat inside a church in a strip mall listening to a woman who had been addicted to drugs and who lost her husband to an overdose.
Looking on was the Rev. Brad Hill, whose cocaine addiction led him to start Grace Downtown Church in the back room of a local bar. In his new space, he ministers to hundreds of recovering drug users in a town where he said the toll of addiction has been devastating.
“The Houghton sisters are just a microcosm,” he said, noting that drugs in Winchester have led to jail terms, separated families, overdoses, a flood of children in foster care, emergency responders strained by drug calls and packed treatment centers.
All three sisters were sentenced on drug-related charges. Effie and Vicky pleaded guilty, while Judith was convicted at trial.
Effie got time served. Vicky received two years in prison, and Judith was sentenced to seven years. Judith is appealing. Effie could not be reached for comment, but both Vicky and Judith suggested they had no previous knowledge of any cartel connections.
Judith was distraught that her three children were placed among foster parents and relatives. She worries about whether the cartel could try and find her.
“How far do their arms reach? Do they have pictures of my kids?” Judith said on a prison phone.
Back in Axton, one Latino resident worried that publicity over cartel activity was fueling attitudes that unfairly conflate drug trafficking and immigration.
“This is a Trump area right here. Everybody’s talking like, ‘This is why we need to build that wall and deport all the illegal Mexicans.’ But really, the majority are just committed to working hard,” said Eli Salgado of Axton.
Sheriff Perry and others believe the cartel’s presence hasn’t disappeared in Axton. How many Axton-like rural drug hubs exist in Virginia isn’t known.
“I guess everyone thinks their own backyard would be immune to this activity, for us it proved it wasn’t,” he said.
For now, in Axton, reminders of the cartel’s presence have faded.
Behind one house whose address was cited in court documents, mounds of rain-soaked drywall lay in the tall grass.
The current resident, a Spanish-speaking factory worker who said she moved in after police raided Axton area homes, stood at the back door with her 17-year-old son, who is in high school. She said they had to rebuild the floors and walls, but didn’t know why they had been torn out.
A nearby trailer, accessed by her driveway, was apparently being used as a stash house, authorities said in a search warrant affidavit.
As for the CJNG cartel itself? Her son translated for her as they stood in the doorway.
She didn’t know about them, she said.
Then they shut the door.
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Investigative reporter Chris Kenning and photographer Sam Upshaw spent four days in Virginia to dig into CJNG cartel activity in the communities of Axton and Winchester. Kenning reviewed hundreds of pages of cartel-related court documents and interviewed more than 30 people. Kenning has worked for The Courier Journal for more than 15 years; Upshaw for 32 years. Kenning can be reached at email@example.com
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