CALEXICO, Calif. - On a sleepy boulevard of motels and fast-food joints near the Mexican border, police stopped a car with a broken tail light. In the trunk, an officer found a trash bag containing 48 pounds of narcotics, and in the driver's pocket, scraps of paper scrawled with phone numbers.
Almost four years later, a grave Eric Holder called his first news conference as attorney general and announced where those phone numbers had led - to a sweeping investigation called Operation Xcellerator, which produced the largest-ever federal crackdown on Mexico's Sinaloa drug cartel, with 761 people arrested and 23 tons of narcotics seized.
Standing with Holder that day in 2009 was acting Drug Enforcement Administration chief Michele Leonhart, who declared: "Today we have dealt the Sinaloa drug cartel a crushing blow."
But just how crushing was it? An Associated Press investigation casts doubt on whether the crackdown caused any significant setback for the cartel. It still ranks near the top of Mexico's drug gangs, and most of those arrested were underlings who had little connection to the cartel and were swiftly replaced. The cartel leader remains free, along with his top commanders.
The findings confirm what many critics of the drug war have said for years: The government is quick to boast about large arrests or drug seizures, but many of its most-publicized efforts result in little, if any, slowdown in the drug trade.
"These big sweeps are going to have an impact for a little bit at the local level. It's going to be a blip. If you're a drug user, you're going to have a hard time getting your fix for a while," said Eric Sevigney, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina who researches what happens to drug dealers after they are arrested. "But over a short period of time, the market is going to correct itself. And over the long-term period, there's really little effect in these types of seizures."
Holder vowed to keep up the fight. "These cartels will be destroyed," he said. Other top officials at the Justice Department and the DEA made similar statements at least six times in 2-1/2 years. But neither agency tracked the outcomes of each arrest in the sweep.
The AP conducted a detailed review of the operation. It tracked 193 of the people arrested, filed Freedom of Information Act requests, analyzed thousands of pages of court records and interviewed dozens of people such as prisoners, former suspects, law enforcement agents and criminal law experts. Among the findings:
Federal agents do not nab top cartel bosses. None of the bosses who control their syndicates have ever been arrested in the U.S. They are all believed to be living in Mexico, where they can more easily dodge law enforcement.
Many of the people they do arrest are not even middle management. They are low-level American street dealers and "mules" who help smuggle the drugs.
But most have never heard of the Mexican organized crime gangs they're supposed to represent, let alone have conducted business directly with the cartel. Such workers are easily replaced with only an inconvenience to the organization.
A third of those arrested are already out on the streets. Jurors acquitted them, or prosecutors decided there was not enough evidence to hold them. Others jumped bail or went undercover for the DEA.
Authorities often announce high arrest numbers, but some suspects are counted twice. An arrested street dealer may show up in the statistics of several Justice Department sweeps.
Operation Xcellerator was one of five major federal investigations targeting Mexican cartels in less than four years. The sweeps yielded more than 5,000 arrests and more than 160 tons of confiscated marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin. But the cartels continue to distribute those drugs and bring their profits, estimated at more than $30 billion a year, home to Mexico.
That figure has risen steadily in the past four years. In 2007, the Justice Department estimated that the Mexican drug trade generated as much as $24.9 billion. By 2009, it was $39 billion. This year, the government declined to make a projection, saying only that drugs brought in "tens of billions of dollars."
Even the Justice Department acknowledges that the influence of Mexican drug-trafficking organizations is still expanding.
Still, DEA Deputy Director David Gaddis insists the federal strategy works: Cocaine prices are up, and purity is down. Thousands of criminals who would otherwise be killing, stealing and pushing drugs are locked away. Tons of narcotics have been destroyed. Critical insider information is being gleaned from suspects in exchange for lighter sentences or the chance to go free.
"Remember that this is a problem - international drug trafficking and transnational criminal organizations - that's been going on for 40 years at a minimum. It's not something that we can change in a single generation, but we're working hard to change it in the next, and we're moving in the right direction," Gaddis said. "It's not something we're going to turn off like a faucet."
Gary Hale, a recently retired senior DEA intelligence official on the U.S.-Mexico border, called it "one step forward, three steps back."
The investigation that eventually became Operation Xcellerator began with the May 2005 traffic stop in El Centro, Calif. The phone numbers that the driver had in his pocket sparked a nationwide manhunt for a high-level Sinaloa cartel operative named Victor Emilio Cazares Gastellum.
But Cazares Gastellum was never caught and neither was Sinaloa's leader, billionaire Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, one of Mexico's most-wanted drug lords. The driver, Noe Amzequita, is serving a seven-year sentence.
Then, in late 2006, newly elected Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared war on the seven major drug cartels, launching a bloodbath between traffickers and military and civilian authorities, and among the cartels themselves. Since then, nearly 30,000 people have been killed, and the gangs control large swaths of northern Mexico to ferry their product to customers in the U.S.
In spring of 2007, an El Centro police officer named Robert Sawyer and his colleagues began tapping the phone of a man who turned up in the initial investigation that followed the traffic stop.
Sawyer's team filmed outside homes, listened in on cell phone conversations, intercepted mail, and rifled through garbage cans. They noted every quirk in their routines, down to when one started ordering something different off a fast-food menu.
But all that work could go only so far. Mexico's drug kingpins direct their empires from south of the border, making it much harder for U.S. authorities to reach them. American law enforcement agencies are prohibited from dispatching undercover agents and following suspects in Mexico.
Sawyer could have asked Mexican authorities for help, but he told the judge that would jeopardize his work. His wiretaps had identified several corrupt Mexican officials who worked for drug traffickers.
With only a line in the sand or the shallow Rio Grande separating Americans from the bloody drug war, the United States promised to help. That assistance came in the form of numerous other so-called "disrupt-and-dismantle" operations:
2007's Operation Imperial Emperor netted 400 arrests and "dismantled a major drug trafficking enterprise," said FBI head Robert Mueller.
2008's Project Reckoning took in 507 suspects in what Leonhart called "a hard-hitting, coordinated and massive assault."
2009's Project Coronado netted 1,186 people and "dealt a significant blow" to the La Familia cartel, Holder said.
2010's Project Deliverance snared 2,200 suspects and "inflicted a debilitating blow," according to Leonhart, netting 2,200 arrests.
Yet the gangs continue to grow.
Rep. Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat and chairman of the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security, finds the contradiction baffling. And he complains that DEA officials, when questioned at hearings, offer little proof the efforts are effective.
The government numbers, he said, "don't mean much because I can't get a coherent answer to find out what happens to all of those people, and what percentage of drugs are making it through," he said. "I've got to wonder if it's a cost-effective strategy."
The Justice Department claimed that Xcellerator arrested "hundreds of alleged Sinaloa cartel members and associates," but the outcomes of individual criminal cases suggest otherwise.
Otis Rich, a 34-year-old career criminal from Baltimore, was arrested after he was connected, via cell phone calls, to another Baltimore cocaine dealer, who had his product shipped from an Arizona trafficker, who got his product from Mexico. When asked about the Sinaloa cartel, Rich said, "Sina-who? I don't know anything about them guys." He's serving 15 years in federal prison in Atlanta for conspiracy to distribute cocaine.
The arrests included a suburban Los Angeles software engineer and charter pilot accused of helping the cartel transport drugs. But he was acquitted after he persuaded a jury that he had no idea a passenger aboard his Cessna was carrying 66 pounds of cocaine on a flight from California to Stow, Ohio.
"One of the jurors came up to me afterward and said the only thing I was guilty of is stupidity," Malcolm Sales said.
Dr. Juan Ramon Banuelos, a surgeon from Mexicali, Mexico, was touted as a prize catch: He was named as one of several ringleaders who shepherded cocaine and methamphetamine from Mexicali to the western United States. DEA spokeswoman Dawn Dearen said he was also linked to cases in Los Angeles and Brockton, Mass.
Yet he was not a top cartel operative by any stretch. His was a fairly low-level job arranging for loads of cocaine to be taken north of the border and $1 million-plus in cash to be driven back south.
Banuelos, 38, says his former partner - another doctor and still a fugitive - won't have a problem staying in business. "He had a lot of drivers. If one or two got caught, they would quickly be replaced," he said in an interview from prison.
Many charged in Operation Xcellerator were small fish - drivers, lookouts, mechanics. A young drug addict drove across the border carrying five grams of meth - an amount equal to the weight of a U.S. nickel. A lookout was paid $500 each time he called to say whether a drug-laden vehicle made it past an inspector. Drivers are typically paid about $3,000 to get a load across the border, equal to about two years of minimum wage in Mexico. "A load driver is kind of the bottom of the barrel," Sawyer said.
Defense attorneys say the public should not expect major law enforcement operations to stop cartels in their tracks.
"They could repeat this every year if they wanted to," said Mahir Sharif, Banuelos's attorney. "It's not going to make a difference. Someone is just going to fill the shoes of these people as long as there is an insatiable appetite in the U.S. and greed in Mexico."
U.S. District Judge Larry Burns, who sentenced Banuelos and more than a dozen Xcellerator defendants, acknowledges that many suspects are easy to replace. But, he says, the U.S. needs to work with the weapons it has: seizing large amounts of drugs and meting out severe penalties.
Gaddis said it's disruptive for cartels to lose their drivers, their accountants and their money launderers. "It's not like Whack-a-Mole," he said. "It will take cartels time to replace specific and pertinent roles within their trafficking infrastructure."
Yes, but aren't the drugs they seize a fraction of those on the street, and the criminals arrested replaced or released?
Gaddis dropped his head into his hands for a moment, thinking.
"You know, we're doing God's work," he replied.
A DEA agent, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of ongoing investigations, said the public would be wrong to think that 5,000 arrests are going to wipe out Mexican drug cartels.
"I realize the mindset of the American public is that at the end of the hour, the crime is solved, but it isn't. It's a business enterprise," he said. "So, do we disrupt them? Absolutely. Do we absolutely put them to a stop? No, we didn't."