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Flight of a drug cartel smuggler

I’m sitting face to face with a former smuggler for Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel and thinking to myself, “This guy looks more like a grandpa than a big-time drug runner — no tattoos, no shaved head and no attitude.”

Los Angeles Times reporter Richard Marosi and I are in a federal prison in Herlong, Calif., a two-hour drive north of Reno, to interview and photograph John Ward. Ward is serving 10 years for illegally bringing drugs into the U.S.

Marosi and I have worked together for many stories along the U.S.-Mexico border. To write The Times’ four-part series “Inside the Cartel,” Marosi spent two years poring over court documents for details on how Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel distributes drugs throughout the U.S. Photographing the places where these events happened years ago is a challenging — and sometimes tedious — assignment. I call it “shooting ghosts.” All that remains are the places; the people are long gone. As it turned out, this project was a reminder about the dangers of covering the cartels. But more on that later.

We meet Ward at 9 a.m. sharp in the prison day room. A guard at an elevated desk watches over the room furnished with plastic chairs hooked together in long rows, like in a small-town bus station. In my audio slide show, above, you hear Ward droning on in a slow, monotonous voice.  The soda machine and water cooler occasionally turn on and off, somewhat spoiling my desire for what we call “clean audio.” He pays the camera no mind and talks nonstop. I begin to wonder if he’s giving us a confession, atoning for a life of crime or spinning one fantastic yarn after another for his visitors.

He says that when he’d fly home after a typical drug delivery, he’d bring so much cash that he would bury it in the backyard of his Carlsbad, Calif., home. “I made millions and I spent millions.” Of the loot in his garden he quips: “It was my Bank of Earth.” I’m shocked when he gives us the house address. Weeks later, Marosi and I walk around his old neighborhood and wonder out loud if there might be some dough still buried there. Ward didn’t say.

The story that really gets me thinking about tracing his smuggling trail involves Death Valley. Ward describes how he landed his plane on a dry lake bed inside the national park. It’s called the Racetrack because here and there on the sun-baked surface it appears that rocks have mysteriously zipped around for hundreds of yards, leaving grooved trails behind. Scientists believe that powerful seasonal winds inch them along when the ground is periodically wet and slippery. Ward says the Racetrack is perfect for smuggling: It’s flat, in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by mountains that hide clandestine landings from military radar.

But those enigmatic boulders are in the way. Ward admits he desecrated part of this national preserve. He ordered his ground crew to move some of the rocks out of their ancient trails so he could land his plane without busting off a wheel or two.

Two weeks after the prison interview, I head for Death Valley. At the park headquarters in aptly named Furnace Creek, a ranger confirms he knows about the illegal landings and vandalism at the Racetrack. I tell him what I’m up to and he warns, “If you blow a tire, you could be stuck out there for days.” But I’m already committed, so I poke along at about 15 mph on the same 30-mile, tire-shredding gravel road used by Ward’s dastardly ground crew. I want to be there at night, when Ward would drop in.

Two hours before sunset, I stop on the dry shoreline and orient myself to landmarks that Ward sketched in my notebook. I spot the “island” he had to avoid, and the pass he’d fly through to the southwest. “Wow,” I say out loud, “he really was here!” I sling cameras and a tripod and hump it across the reticulated lake bottom for about a half-mile. On the way I discover that there are still rocks here and there that remain undisturbed. I gawk, wonder, and shoot them.

The sun drops and a mountain shadow draws over the place, turning everything from white to gray. I clamp a Canon digital camera to the tripod and focus a wide-angle lens to infinity. By now the cloudlike Milky Way and stars fill the sky right down to the jagged horizon encircling me. I make a series of 30- and 40-second exposures. For some pictures, I fire off a strobe to illuminate a mysterious rock trail in the shape of a curve. By 2 a.m. it’s cooled down to “San Diego weather,” 75 and dry. Keeping the Big Dipper to my right, I trudge back in a straight line toward the northwest, hoping to run into my car. I do. I curl up over the hump in the back seat to sleep. I’d already cracked a window open a little, locked the doors, put a flashlight by my side and dismissed thoughts of a crazy desert rat doing me in.

Some days later, I talk with my editor Mary Cooney about flying over Death Valley. As luck would have it, I remember a pilot and former football coach in Trona, Calif., who once flew me around to shoot Trona High School’s dirt football field — the only such gridiron field still played on in the U.S. The pilot says he’s willing to fly like fearless John Ward: full speed at telephone pole height, up through mountain passes and then down over the Racetrack. Prudently, he’s not willing to skylark at night, so we fly Ward’s route at daybreak. A highlight of the morning is chasing our shadow at just a few feet above the otherwise featureless surface of the dry lake. But we never touch down. That would be illegal.

For my second flight story, I travel to Smoketown, Penn., one of Ward’s Eastern destinations. Ward says Smoketown is unique and well suited to his business. He stayed at a motel adjacent to the airport. He always parked his cocaine-stuffed plane right outside cabin No. 52 at the end of “runway two-eight,” where he could keep an eye on it.

I rent the cabin and pocket the same key chain Ward described as having, a little triangular plastic tag that reads, “If found drop in any mailbox. Return postage guaranteed.” Inside No. 52, it feels peculiar to stand exactly where Ward would remove the back window screen and heave duffle bags of drugs from his plane into the little parlor. As I tweak off the screen and photograph the room and airplanes outside, I realize that I’m planted in Ward’s invisible footprints. “Hmmm, he was here too!”

I get up at dawn, the hour Ward calls “magic time.” That’s when he let cartel operatives in the room to take away a couple of hundred pounds of cocaine. They would leave behind millions of dollars in cash. Inside one bag he was about to fly back California, Ward says, “was a ‘special bag’ containing $130,000 cash. My pay — for two days’ work.”

I hire the manager of the airport to fly me around Smoketown. We bank over white Amish farmhouses, green row crops and gossamer wisps of fog. Later, as I edit the postcard-like scenes, I remember Ward telling me he would like to have been a tourist here in “the Gateway to Amish Country.” Instead he methodically delivered shipment after shipment of weed, pot, blow and snort.

The third and most bizarre flight route story offered up an important lesson about the danger of “previsualization,” the value of instinct and the good advice of a man who is smarter than I am — namely my Mexican “fixer.” Ward says he used to land on a secret airstrip on a 3,000-foot-high dirt mesa in Culiacan. I dream about this cinematic scene for months. To paraphrase Ward: He’d skid the plane to a halt in a cloud of dust as donkeys laden with burlap bags of marijuana waited.  With the engine still running, campesinos filled the plane from floor to ceiling.  Then he roared off the cliff, gaining enough airspeed only by diving steeply into the valley below. Now that’s a hell of a photo-op.

I travel to Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa state, looking for a flight to the mountain. At the municipal airport, our Mexico City bureau chief, Tracy Wilkinson, and I are chatting with three private pilots. I flip open Ward’s drawing of the mystery mountain in my reporter’s notebook. I indicate on a wall map where I think it might be.  Almost immediately the men flinch, furrow their brows and say, “Fly out there and the Mexican army will intercept us, force us down and take our plane away.” Another guy blurts out, “Or they will shoot us down!” OK, OK, I say. Gracias, lo siento, sorry. My bad. I feel really foreign at this moment.

Next I appeal to our long-trusted fixer, a local newspaper journalist Tracy and I trust implicitly for guidance on risky stories. I ask if he’d drive us into the mountainous countryside. So, here we are, on a two-lane road inside what’s understood to be “cartel territory.” Not a single local on the roadside or a doorstep admits to knowing the location of a mountaintop airstrip. Pressing on past a dozen distant mountaintops — I keep imagining one must hold the airstrip — we instead spot the house of Ward’s alleged former boss, Victor Emilio Cazares, Mexico’s most wanted drug-trafficking suspect. The house sits all by itself in a broad valley of plowed tomato fields. Cazares remains a fugitive and his estate is rumored to be unoccupied. A government document is pasted on a concrete fence pillar. Soaring up from behind the 10-foot-high iron pickets are twin bell towers of a private cathedral Cazares built for his mother. We approach at regular speed so as not to cause suspicion. My fixer repeats the ground rules: “We stop for pictures, but you’ve got no more than 30 seconds outside the car. They’re watching us!” I don’t see anyone, but I believe him.

We never locate Ward’s mysterious mountain, or any pot farmer’s donkeys or any mota fields. I believe Ward was telling the truth, but I decide to abandon this chapter. I know from 39 years in photojournalism that danger can hide in plain sight — like a ghost.


  1. July 28, 2011, 5:25 am

    This is a really amazing story! thanks for posting. Great photos & audio.

    By: peteherb
  2. July 28, 2011, 5:27 am

    Well written story, beautiful photos. Would love to see more of them!

  3. July 28, 2011, 8:50 am

    Fantastic story and wonderful photos!! Great Job!

  4. July 30, 2011, 11:37 am



  5. August 1, 2011, 12:43 pm

    Great story and photos, the battle goes on to stop the drug traffickers, I don’t think the appetite for drugs has diminished. A young man I used to hang out with is doing 14 years in a Federal prison right now, for dealing Meth in MN, he has about 10 yrs left. I got away from those people and have a good life now. It could have been bad for me too if it wasn’t for my wife who helped me change my ways.


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