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Federal courthouse building in downtown San Diego.
Federal courthouse building in downtown San Diego. (San Diego Union-Tribune)

SAN DIEGO (Tribune News Service) — One year ago, the suspected leader of a Sinaloa cartel cell was arrested at a private airport outside Boston, and a month later a massive cache of drugs, cash and ammunition was seized from an Otay Mesa trucking yard.

The bust netted a high-profile suspect and a stash worth several million dollars. But perhaps the most valuable assets to come of the whole operation were the cellphones, nearly 40 of them.

The seized phones have provided federal investigators a window into the inner workings of the Valenzuela Drug Trafficking Organization, allegedly headed by Jorge Valenzuela Valenzuela, and have led to recent charges against dozens of others, including his sister, a Chula Vista restaurateur.

Wuendi Valenzuela Valenzuela, 37, is named as the lead defendant in an indictment against 30 people that alleges a large-scale conspiracy to traffic cocaine within the United States, send U.S. guns and ammunition to Mexico and launder the scheme’s illicit profits, according to the charges unsealed last month in San Diego federal court.

The Valenzuelas have pleaded not guilty and are being held in custody without bail.

The siblings are accused of stepping into the void left by another brother, Luis Gabriel Valenzuela Valenzuela, who was the logistics and financial operator of a money laundering network for Sinaloa kingpin Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada.

The brother, who went by the moniker Julian Grimaldi Paredes, was shot to death 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 a military convoy ambush in which five soldiers were killed in 2016.

A few months after the brother’s killing, his nephew was fatally shot in a Mexico City hotel.

The bloodshed is believed to be part of the ongoing struggle for power over the weakened Sinaloa cartel. A faction of those loyal to Zambada, 74, are battling it out internally with the sons of infamous co-leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who is serving a lifetime prison sentence in the U.S. Another rival organization, Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, makes up the third front as it violently jockeys for control.

The investigation into the Valenzuela cell is part of a decade-long probe into the Sinaloa cartel and its San Diego ties.

Jorge, the cell’s alleged boss, was under surveillance on Oct. 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 in one of the suitcases, finding 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 had under surveillance an Otay Mesa truck yard tied to Jorge’s cross-border trucking companies. On Nov. 20, 2020, agents 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, about 20,000 rounds of .50-caliber ammunition, 100 rifle magazines and 427 body armor vests, according to court records.

The ammo — obtained from a business in Oregon — and body armor were packaged and loaded into a tractor-trailer, bound for Mexico, investigators said.

Agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and Homeland Security Investigations also seized 24 cellphones during the warehouse operation, adding to the 15 that were taken off Jorge during his airport arrest.

Jorge largely ran the business from Mexico and San Diego by 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 propel the case forward, according to investigators.

The evidence revealed that Jorge’s sister acted as his “right-hand” woman, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Sutton in a November court hearing arguing for her detention. “Her main role in the organization was to safeguard and take care of the money aspect,” Sutton said.

Wuendi is accused of receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash at a time from drug- and gun-trafficking and then driving it herself into Mexico, where it would be used to pay corrupt Mexican government officials and members of the organization, Sutton said. “She is very trusted,” he added.

Agents had planned to search her Chula Vista home eventually, but they had to move quicker than anticipated when surveillance — including images from a pole camera aimed at her home — indicated she and her husband were packing up and moving, Sutton said. They feared she was fleeing to Mexico.

She was arrested in a traffic stop on Nov. 2. A search of her 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 forfeiture of the cash and two-story home, as well as jewelry, vehicles and about 30 designer watches — including by Rolex, Hublot and Jacob & Co., some of which are valued at $500,000 to $1 million each, Sutton said.

Wuendi’s attorney said she was a law-abiding, long-time Chula Vista resident here on a visa, and that she was not fleeing to Mexico, a place considered especially dangerous for her. “As recently as last week she was receiving 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 her husband comes from a family of restaurateurs, and that they had made it a success through hard work.

Wuendi is charged with conspiracy to import and distribute cocaine — although Sutton clarified she is not suspected of personally handling the drugs — as well as conspiracy to launder money. Others are accused of procuring firearms and ammunition in the U.S. and then illegally exporting them to Tijuana for use of the criminal organization, according to the indictment.

Seven of the 30 defendants in the recent indictment have been arrested in San Diego; the names of the others, apparently still at large, are redacted.

©2022 The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Visit sandiegouniontribune.com.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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