A DEA agent tracked the source of fentanyl in Mormon country — a Mexican cartel
The Washington Post December 13, 2022
ST. GEORGE, Utah — The meth was expensive. The federal agents were running out of money.
They had been buying loads of drugs in undercover operations, trying to trace the pipeline of methamphetamine and fentanyl into this sleepy city of retirees, out-of-town hikers and Mormon churches.
Brady Wilson, one of just two Drug Enforcement Administration agents in southern Utah, begged his bosses for more cash. The case felt big - a window into how Mexican organized crime had penetrated even suburban America.
“It was a gut feeling,” Wilson said. A Mexican cartel, he suspected, had set up shop in St. George.
Wilson, a bald, trim 42-year-old, operated out of an unmarked building, across the street from a car wash. He looked around St. George, a city of about 100,000 surrounded by jagged red-rock cliffs and waves of cookie-cutter suburbs. Few places in America would make a more incongruous outpost for Mexican drug traffickers.
And yet synthetic drugs had arrived here much as they had in other small cities and rural areas across the United States — abruptly and with immediate, devastating impact. In Utah, fentanyl overdose deaths had increased 300 percent over a three-year period, killing 170 people in 2021, according to the state health department.
Mexican criminal groups had become experts in producing fentanyl and meth across the border. Now, Wilson knew, they were honing their role in retail distribution in the United States, where synthetics had reshaped the geography of drug demand. There was money to be made in places like St. George.
In early 2020, Wilson got his first tip. Someone walked up to the FBI field office in St. George with a claim that appeared to leap from Wilson’s subconscious.
“The message was: ‘You’ve got a major player in your area who has significant ties to Mexico.’ “
According to the informant, a Mexican man was running a drug distribution ring from a small ranch on the edge of St. George. Wilson and other federal law enforcement officials launched an investigation. They were about to learn how deeply Mexican cartels have penetrated the heartland of America. What follows is based on court documents and information Wilson and several other federal officials shared with The Washington Post.
At first, the work was tedious. They conducted stakeouts in strip-mall parking lots. They interviewed detained drug dealers. They weren’t getting enough evidence to advance the case.
Then, in 2021, the agents made a breakthrough. They traced a shipment of drugs to Ángel Rubio Quintana, a 41-year-old from Michoacán, Mexico. Deported years earlier, he had returned to southern Utah, where his relatives had a popular fast-food restaurant known for its burritos and carne asada.
He was a short, chubby man with a goatee. He shepherded his four children around St. George in a used SUV. They posed for photos in front of the mall; in front of their Christmas tree; in front of a flower shop, wearing matching plaid shirts. The agents didn’t need to work hard to get his contact information. Rubio sold used cars in front of his in-laws’ Mexican restaurant, scrawling his phone number on the windshields.
When agents found out where Rubio was living, Wilson shook his head in disbelief. The man suspected of importing drugs into St. George had moved his family into one of the city’s immaculate suburbs, on a street lined with American flags and pickups. It wasn’t far from Wilson’s own home.
What Wilson needed to learn was how Rubio ran the operation. Could agents build a strong enough case against him to cast a net over the entire trafficking ring?
The evidence trickled in. The first time agents purchased a large load of meth from Rubio, they said, it arrived in a five-pound tub of sour cream called La Crema Mexicana. The agents wondered whether there was a connection between the extended family’s restaurant and Rubio’s drug trade.
The tub solved one of Wilson’s problems - what to call the investigation: Operation Sour Cream.
As a young DEA agent, Wilson had studied the architecture of America’s drug war.
Drug trafficking routes through Mexico, he learned, are the product of years of turf wars, shifting alliances and continually refined smuggling techniques. Nearly a century after early opium smugglers lugged their loads across the Rio Grande, Mexico has been carved into criminal fiefdoms. Different cartels own different stretches of the border.
The Sinaloa cartel has risen to become the world’s premier fentanyl producer. The group manufactures fentanyl and meth throughout northwestern Mexico, in labs that span the mountains of Culiacán and dot the residential streets of downtown Tijuana. Those drugs are loaded into hidden compartments in cars and trucks and sent across the border into California and Arizona.
What happens once those drugs enter the United States — the pipeline from the border to the user - has been less clear. How involved are cartels in the distribution and sale of their own products? Historically, most dealers don’t know whose drugs they’re selling.
But with the explosion of fentanyl, which can be pressed into tiny counterfeit pills or mixed into other drugs like cocaine and heroin, the question of how the products arrive at their final destination is of urgent importance. More Americans are dying of drug overdoses than ever before. The tentacles of Mexican criminal organizations are lengthening in the United States, their distribution methods becoming more efficient as their drugs become more dangerous.
Wilson had seen the outlet of that pipeline in Seattle, where he got his first job with the DEA in 2009. Mexico’s two biggest criminal organizations, the Sinaloa cartel and the Jalisco New Generation cartel, both operated in the city, ordering up drug shipments directly from their counterparts in Mexico. That phenomenon has continued: From May 23 through Sept. 8 of this year, the Justice Department investigated 35 fentanyl cases with direct links to those two groups.
Wilson noted how both cartels established outposts in Seattle as if they were inaugurating a shadow consulate. The cartels recruited from within immigrant communities, exploiting recently arrived Hondurans, for example, who were pressured to pay back human smugglers by dealing drugs.
As Wilson settled into St. George, Sinaloa-linked busts were being made in unlikely places, away from major American cities. Trafficking rings were uncovered in western Pennsylvania and Battle Creek, Mich. Authorities found one Sinaloa affiliate using a bootleg phone to operate out of a federal prison in Henderson, N.C.
But Wilson felt good about the St. George assignment. He was a Utah native, looking for a quiet place to live with his young family.
“This is going to be a much slower pace,” he remembers thinking.
Throughout the 2010s, the closest drug cartel outpost to St. George was Las Vegas, about a two-hour drive away. Small-time drug dealers transported modest loads — sometimes just a few ounces - from there to southern Utah.
“Most of our cases were just these local people going to Vegas to pick up an ounce or two, or 100 pills, maybe 200 pills,” Wilson said.
In 2015, the DEA published a map of “Areas of Influence of Major Mexican Transnational Criminal Organizations.” St. George wasn’t mentioned - a market not big enough to warrant recognition by the cartels.
But demand for synthetic drugs had increased in southern Utah just as supply had surged in Mexico. St. George had itself boomed; it is now the nation’s fastest-growing metropolitan area. Not long after Wilson arrived in Utah, he and his colleagues were finding fentanyl everywhere - in pillowcases and glove compartments during routine traffic stops, next to the bodies of overdose victims, once in a plastic bag in a Panda Express bathroom.
The drugs that arrived here from Las Vegas were no longer enough. St. George had apparently gotten its first hookup directly to Mexico.
Ángel Rubio was no one’s idea of a cartel kingpin. He was illiterate. He was constantly in debt. His drug business was perpetually short-staffed, so he enlisted his teenage son. Even the front for his operation - a 10-acre ranch on the edge of town - gave the appearance of an amateur. The cows kept escaping, wandering into the suburbs.
And yet his ability to order up drugs from Mexico was impressive to the agents watching him. At some point in his early middle age, Rubio had connected with the Sinaloa cartel.
To build their case, federal agents began purchasing larger and larger quantities of drugs from Rubio, using an undercover buyer to determine the scale of his operation.
“We were buying meth at $4,000 a pound,” said Jay Tinkler, then the top DEA agent in Utah and Wilson’s boss.
Tinkler pleaded for more government funds to buy more drugs, partly at Wilson’s insistence.
“I’m calling my boss and telling him: ‘It’s a really good case, I’m telling you,’” Tinkler said.
Those purchases eventually helped the agents get a court-ordered wiretap on Rubio’s phone. That’s how they got a glimpse into the life of St. George’s cartel connection. The surveillance was 24/7; a team of interpreters was employed.
Rubio repeatedly called the same two men in Sinaloa state, sometimes multiple times a day.
I need buttons, they heard him say, which meant fentanyl pills.
I need glass, he said, which meant meth.
Rubio also referred to drugs as goats and sheep, according to court documents in the case, “hoping it would go undetected because he literally sold goats and sheep from his corral.” The small-town nature of the investigation complicated things. Several times agents ran into an unsuspecting Rubio or his associates at the grocery store.
“You’ll never guess who I saw at the store,” one of the agents told Wilson after returning to the office one day.
It became clear over time that the two men in Mexico were affiliated with the Sinaloa cartel. Federal agents and prosecutors referred to them jointly as “the Mexican supply,” but their names, which would later appear in a federal indictment, were Ramon Higuera-Cota and Presciliano Galax-Felix. They could dispatch drugs to St. George rapidly, responding immediately to demand.
It wasn’t that Rubio worked as an underling for the Sinaloa men. He negotiated his own prices - often ruthlessly lowballing Higuera-Cota and Galax-Felix. The federal agents began to realize that the cartel wasn’t operating in St. George under a corporate hierarchy. Rubio hadn’t been sent here with orders from Sinaloa. He was the semiautonomous leader of his own mini-fiefdom, able to order fentanyl, meth and cocaine like a pizza delivery.
The drugs would arrive a day or two after his orders were placed, crossing the border near San Diego and then moving on to stash houses, often on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Then Rubio would arrange transport to St. George. He would sometimes lecture the drivers himself, federal agents said.
“He’d tell them: ‘Bring your kid so it’s less obvious. Always get your vehicle serviced so you don’t break down,’ “ Wilson recalled.
Those cars would travel along what has increasingly become America’s main fentanyl artery, Interstate 15, which connects Los Angeles to much of the country. It passes directly through St. George, where signs for available real estate continue to spring up. “A new standard of life is beginning,” reads one billboard.
When the drugs arrived in St. George, Rubio stashed some of them on the ranch he rented. He hid other loads in storage units. Others he left in the homes of friends or buried in the horse corral. His neighbors, mostly White retirees, grew suspicious. DEA agents installed a camera in the backyard of one neighbor’s home. Another neighbor, Mark Correll, a retiree from Texas, bought night-vision goggles to keep an eye on the ranch.
“There was a lot of traffic late at night,” Correll said. “A lot of fancy cars. We knew something was up. We just weren’t sure what.”
Rubio and his colleagues, court documents said, “pocketed some revenue as profits and wired payments to Mexican sources of supply.”
“This cycle — ordering from Mexico, picking up from California, distributing in Southern Utah, wiring payments back to Mexico - resulted in large quantities of narcotics flowing into the local community,” the documents said.
Rubio’s fentanyl usually arrived in the form of counterfeit oxycodone pills called M-30s, about a thousand in a bag, worth some $40,000 on the street. Those pills have become increasingly popular - and lethal - as cartels have tried to cater to drug users with rising tolerance. Rubio, agents estimate, was selling 20,000 to 30,000 pills a month.
An agent recalled one conversation in which Rubio tried to place a fentanyl order and was rebuffed:
“We already moved over 25,000 pills yesterday,” one of the men in Sinaloa said. “You should have given me an order. It’s already all gone.”
But more frequently, the Sinaloans appeared to have an endless supply. Sometimes, Rubio’s connection would send him thousands more fentanyl pills than he had ordered.
When Rubio asked why traffickers had sent so many pills, he was told not to worry about it, said one federal official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the case.
“He was told he could pay them back once it was sold,” the official said. “They’re literally pushing drugs because the quantity on the Mexico side is so high.”
At least twice, Rubio’s debt to the Sinaloa men grew to dangerous levels. The men in Mexico began threatening him.
“They were like, ‘We’re going to come up there and we’re going to hunt you guys down,’” one agent recalled.
Remarkably, Rubio called their bluff.
“He said, ‘Hey, this is America. You guys can’t come here and just be running around with guns.’ “
But when people didn’t pay Rubio on time, he was the one who threatened violence. The federal agents, monitoring those threats in real time, sent police on what appeared to be routine patrols, meant to deter Rubio from hurting anyone. There was no indication that he did.
Rubio had originally moved to the United States more than two decades earlier. One of his first stops was Salt Lake City, where he worked construction. One day, he was buying food at a drive-through. A young Mexican woman named María de los Ángeles Acosta took his order.
Eventually the two got married. They had three kids. When people asked her, de los Ángeles described their lives in St. George as peaceful and happy. The city wasn’t as crime-ridden as some of the other American cities where Mexican migrants ended up, she said. “Thankful and blessed,” she posted on Facebook under photos of the family.
Her husband’s clients in St. George came from a range of backgrounds. Some were the service workers who catered to the tourists passing through the city. Others were locals who thought they were purchasing oxycodone, a prescription drug used to treat severe pain.
Dmytro Luke, 22, who worked for a flooring company, died after taking a counterfeit M-30 pill in February 2021. His case drew public attention after his mother began alerting local journalists to the wave of fentanyl in southern Utah that had led to her son’s death. She’s still not sure whether the pill that killed Luke was trafficked by Rubio.
The agents faced a particular dilemma with Rubio’s fentanyl business. If they knew deadly pills were circulating during their investigation, agents said, they couldn’t sit idly by. So they frequently intervened by buying them through informants.
It was a complicated decision. The more pills they purchased, the higher demand could appear to Rubio, giving him an incentive to import more.
The agents knew that some of their most valuable evidence was against Rubio’s suppliers in Sinaloa. Arresting Higuera-Cota and Galax-Felix was a crucial part of the case.
Those men appeared to be on the front line of the explosion of fentanyl. Aside from the M-30 pills, they offered Rubio cocaine and meth laced with fentanyl.
“They talked about that like, ‘Hey, this is some new hot stuff like you should get,’ “ one agent said.
Later, Rubio would tell people that he was merely working for the two men in Sinaloa. He was a small fish, he said.
Because Higuera-Cota and Galax-Felix were in Mexico, the U.S. agents in Utah couldn’t arrest them. It was a source of deep frustration. Agents believed they were exporting fentanyl and meth across much of the southwestern United States, potentially pushing millions of M-30s across the border every year.
“You have this great material and there’s nothing you can do with it,” said one official who worked on the case.
The agents in Utah shared their evidence with Justice Department officials in Washington, according to a former U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to comment. They hoped the case they had built against two men in Mexico would lead to their arrest. But that has not happened.
Mexican officials have not pursued either Higuera-Cota or Galax-Felix, according to the country’s attorney general’s office. That office would not comment on why it had not issued arrest warrants.
Neither man could be reached for comment.
In St. George, federal agents decided they needed to move forward alone. By early this year, agents believed they had enough to build a case against Rubio and his associates in the United States. On a bulletin board in Wilson’s office, they had mapped the dense web that connected Rubio to his team of dealers and suppliers in Mexico. They were ready to make the arrests. “Takedown day,” they called it.
On Feb. 15, dozens of officers from several SWAT teams along with federal agents prepared for raids against Rubio and his accomplices. Some were low-level drug dealers selling fentanyl to pay for their own drug habits. Others were Rubio’s friends and relatives to whom he paid a fraction of his proceeds.
Agents planned to conduct more than nine raids across Utah, many of them simultaneous. The DEA flew several aircraft overhead. The agents discussed what would happen if Rubio tried to shoot his way out, or if he tried to flee into the suburbs.
They arrived at Rubio’s beige-stucco suburban home just before sunrise. It was a clear, crisp morning. They fired a stun grenade upon entering the house. They dragged Rubio, pajama-clad, from his bedroom without a fight.
He was charged with conspiracy to distribute fentanyl and methamphetamine and conspiracy to launder money. He was also charged with unlawful reentry into the United States.
Neighbors in the neatly kept suburb were alarmed. Many were armed. One young woman, living in the property next to Rubio’s, loaded her handgun and sat in a lawn chair in case anyone tried to jump over her fence.
Agents also raided the 10-acre ranch, a few miles from Rubio’s home. By the end of the day, they had arrested 12 people - including Rubio’s 19-year-old son, Carlos Rubio-Acosta. Agents seized thousands of fentanyl pills, as well as cocaine and meth.
Rubio was taken to jail in Cedar City, just north of St. George. In July, he pleaded guilty to trafficking fentanyl, methamphetamine and marijuana, and to laundering the proceeds. He is awaiting sentencing.
It’s possible that he could be deported after his prison sentence, probably a more dangerous consequence than prison, given the money he owes to the Sinaloa cartel.
“He left a lot of debts on the table,” said one agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the case.
“A lot,” said another agent, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I can only speculate how much, but he owes a lot of money.”
Several months after Rubio’s arrest, a Post reporter walked into Alvaro’s Mexican Food, the family’s fast-food restaurant, located in a St. George mall parking lot, next to a tuxedo rental.
A middle-aged woman was standing behind the counter. She stood next to a painting of the pre-Columbian city of Teotihuacán. She was on the phone.
It was Rubio’s wife, María de los Ángeles Acosta. She was talking to her husband in prison.
“Do you want to talk to him?” she asked.
Rubio’s voice then boomed through the speaker.
“Of what they are saying about me, 99 percent is false,” he said.
“I was living a quiet life with my wife and my family,” he said.
He didn’t want to talk in detail about the accusations over the phone. He said he wanted to meet in person.
When Rubio hung up, de los Ángeles sighed.
She was torn. She knew nothing of Rubio’s drug business, she said. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2021, and the family had scrambled to pay for her medical care. She didn’t think her husband would resort to drug trafficking to pay those bills. But she said she believed U.S. law enforcement.
“The authorities cannot be wrong,” she said. “If I trust anyone 100 percent, it is the U.S. authorities.”
As far as she knew, she said, Rubio had been a struggling livestock trader. But he had been acting strange lately, she admitted.
He had created a policy for the family of turning all cellphones off at home. He seemed anxious all the time.
“I just assumed he was having an affair,” she said. “One day I’d like to know the truth.”
Later, she said she was planning to divorce Rubio.
His lawyer, Trinity Jordan, said his client did not want to speak to The Post.
“I talked to my client about your story and at this time he prefers to not participate,” Jordan wrote in an email.
Rubio’s son Carlos Rubio-Acosta pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute fentanyl, conspiracy to distribute marijuana and conspiracy to launder money. He was sentenced in August to 15 months in prison.
“He followed his father’s lead and instructions while participating in the organization,” the sentencing document said.
Rubio’s own sentencing hearing is scheduled for later this month. Agents found no evidence of a connection between his extended family’s restaurant and the drug business.
Wilson left the DEA this year for a job at the U.S. attorney’s office. He’s still working on the Rubio case, as well as other drug-related cases in St. George.
Rubio’s arrest appeared to have an immediate impact, Wilson said. The flow of drugs arriving here appeared to diminish - mostly smaller loads arriving from Las Vegas at higher prices.
But Wilson knew that wouldn’t last.
In recent months, the sizes of drug seizures in St. George have increased once again. In October, local police stopped a 19-year-old Mexican man with 62,000 counterfeit M-30 pills near the St. George exit of I-15. The load was twice as big as those Rubio had handled.
There was no confirmation yet, but Wilson recognized the signs. Soon, it would be time to start again.
The Washington Post’s Steven Rich also contributed reporting.
The Post analyzed data from a range of sources to measure the rise of fentanyl in the United States and Mexico. Among other topics, reporters compiled data on drug seizures, overdose deaths and reversals, border crossings and fentanyl potency.
The data was collected from more than three dozen federal, state and local sources across the United States and Mexico. For example, for the count of overdose deaths in the United States, The Post used mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To measure data seizures along Route 15 in Mexico, reporters standardized multiple datasets from agencies including the Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional, Fiscalía General de la República, Secretaría de Marina and the Guardia Nacional.
Reporters made open records requests in both countries, retrieved data from government websites to create data sets and obtained and analyzed seizure data from High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas, run by the White House’s drug czar, by submitting a detailed research proposal to gain access.