SEASIDE, Ore. — This tranquil coastal town is known for its wide beaches and grand promenade ― and for becoming a target for drug traffickers peddling meth supplied by a Mexican super cartel.
Drug dealers may not have worried about being caught here, in Clatsop County, a 90-minute drive northwest from the bustling city of Portland.
But they didn't know about dogged sheriff's detective John Walker, who developed informants and bought drugs while undercover. FBI agents lauded Walker's work, which helped the Bureau and Homeland Security Investigations expose an extensive drug distribution cell that targeted the Pacific Northwest.
It was run by a deported felon who kept sneaking back across the border.
The Portland-based drug network, which stretched into affluent area suburbs, westbound to Oregon's quaint coastal cities and north into southwestern Washington, is emblematic of a key Mexican cartel strategy to establish drug pipelines far beyond the border and into small, unsuspecting towns.
"When you hear about the drug cartels and the amounts of drugs coming across the border, you start thinking those are big city problems," said Clatsop County Sheriff's Sgt. Jason Hoover, who oversaw Walker and teamed to raid area drug houses in the case.
"But if you have drugs in your community, and I don't think there is any community that can say they don't have any, it is coming from the drug cartels. It's still a little shocking when you can tie it together and say for certain that's where it came from."
Victor Alvarez Farfan, a native of Michoacán, Mexico, headed the Portland drug ring blamed for bringing large amounts of meth, heroin and fentanyl across the border beginning in October 2017.
He previously was convicted on federal drug charges in the U.S. and was deported at least twice. He had at least five aliases and kept slipping back into the U.S.
He and Helida Montes, his partner for 16 years, settled their two children in Oregon City as Farfan grew his business, roping in two of his nephews.
This case had some odd twists, including the involvement by a retired U.S. Marine and his wife, an agonizing test of family loyalties and a gruesome threat from Mexico.
In just six months, smugglers brought across the border almost two kilos of fentanyl — up to 1 million lethal doses of the No. 1 drug killing Americans. That load was headed from Portland to Baltimore.
Farfan's drug ring also sent drugs to Gresham, east of Portland, Hood River, a port on the Columbia River an hour northeast of Portland, and north into Tacoma, Washington.
Robert Hammer, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Seattle, told The Courier Journal that cartels take advantage of the Interstate 5 corridor, a straight route that runs from the San Ysidro border crossing north through Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and into Vancouver, Canada.
"They’re a business," Hammer said of cartels. "They send their businessmen out into the U.S. to look for areas of opportunity." His agents helped on the Farfan investigation.
"We see these nodes or pockets of cartel-related activity springing up in small, rural towns on the east side of Washington, in metropolitan areas like Portland and Seattle. We see them operating illegal marijuana farms in southern Oregon."
In Seaside, known for commercial fishing and timber, traffickers easily established a strong customer base.
"There would be times on surveillance where you'd see 15 to 25 people roaming the local trap house waiting for the next supply to come in, walking around or sitting in cars, just waiting," said Walker, who later left the department.
In 2017, Walker led a raid on a couple of Clatsop drug houses, teaming with Seaside, Cannon Beach and Oregon state police. They found drugs and drug couriers, including a former nurse, linked back to Hillsboro in neighboring Washington County. Walker then secured search warrants to monitor social media accounts, where drug ring members chatted in code on Facebook Messenger.
Walker realized he wasn't the only one watching this drug ring. A larger probe was underway by Washington County Sheriff's WIN Team, the Westside Interagency Narcotics task force that includes agents with the FBI, Hillsboro and Beaverton police and the Oregon National Guard County-Drug investigators.
Investigators uncovered three main pieces of the puzzle that revealed a snapshot of how this drug ring thrived. First, Mexican cartel suppliers established a pipeline to the Portland area. From there, Victor Farfan and his inner circle supplied drug trafficker John Armas in Hillsboro. Armas, in turn, supplied the former nurse and other dealers who carted the drugs further west into Seaside and other communities in Clatsop.
Farfan brought in at least 20 kilos of meth, half a kilo of heroin and nearly two kilos of fentanyl.
After agents toppled the Oregon drug network in 2018 and arrested 23 suspects, there were murders in Mexico that U.S. investigators suspect were meant to scare and silence potential witnesses in the Portland case. To an extent, it worked, illustrating how cartels manipulate on both sides of the border through threats and violence.
Agents and prosecutors didn't openly discuss in court records or hearings which cartel supplied Farfan, but The Courier Journal learned in February that he was supplied by a top U.S. target, the Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación — the subject of a nine-month investigation and 28-page special report by the newspaper in 2019.
Known as CJNG, the cartel is a global powerhouse, detected on every continent except Antarctica. It has drug cells all across the U.S., even in tiny towns. It has an army of 5,000 members, including some former police officers. And, according to reports by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, CJNG and its rival, the infamous Sinaloa Cartel, are the top two suppliers fueling the deadliest drug epidemic in U.S. history.
Farfan got the drugs from CJNG members in Michoacán, a western state long controlled by the cartel, La Familia Michoacána. This case is another example of how CJNG is increasingly vying for turf in Michoacán, the birthplace of its leader, Rubén Oseguera Cervantes. Known as "El Mencho," he's remained in hiding for years and is on the DEA's Most Wanted list.
Many court documents in the Farfan case remain sealed, hiding secrets shared by drug ring members and associates, and some involved in the case opted not to talk because of the volatility of the Mexican suppliers. Still, The Courier Journal traveled to Portland, its suburbs, the Oregon coast and Seattle to review court records and interview federal agents, defense attorneys and prosecutors to learn about the Farfan drug ring, its cartel ties and how it finally imploded.
Grisly warning in Portland case
Victor Alvarez Farfan began sneaking into the U.S. and targeting the Portland area more than two decades ago when he was in his early 20s.
He had a 1999 aggravated felony drug conviction in Multnomah County and was deported in 2001. Four years later, he was caught selling drugs out of a southeast Portland auto repair shop.
For police, it was déà vu. Two years earlier, they stumbled onto a drug business at the same auto repair shop allegedly run by suspect Jose Cruz Gutierrez Bustos. Investigators believe Bustos fled to Mexico.
Farfan wasn't as lucky. Agents arrested him in 2006, and he was convicted of illegally reentering the U.S. and trafficking cocaine and meth. He remained in prison until his deportation in 2015, court records show.
But two years later, agents discovered he had slipped back into the U.S., returned to Portland and resumed trafficking cocaine and meth and had added heroin to his offerings.
This time, as Farfan oversaw his drug business, FBI agents mounted an investigation against him.
Police arrested Farfan in October 2018 as he and Montes drove toward California on Highway 99 near Roseburg, nearly three hours south of Portland, while towing a car. A federal grand jury had indicted him and more than 20 others on money laundering and drug trafficking charges.
Farfan refused to talk to agents or prosecutors. His attorney, Noel Grefenson, declined comment for this story.
Regardless, prosecutors had strong evidence including transcripts from six months of wire taps in 2018 as Farfan chatted about drug shipments.
"He spoke with Mexican-based members of the conspiracy, met interstate couriers and directed subordinates," prosecutors noted in a government motion to keep Farfan locked up pending trial.
Cartel members issued a stark warning in Mexico that reverberated through the drug network in Oregon. Headless bodies were dumped at the doorstep of a business associated with the Farfan family in their home state of Michoacán.
The Farfans and other defendants mulling over plea offers took it as a threat if they mentioned any cartel connections. Many were scared silent and to this day no Mexican suppliers have faced justice for these crimes. It's a common and effective tactic used by many cartels. They control witnesses in the U.S. by threatening to kidnap, torture and kill loved ones within their reach in Mexico, hamstringing agents trying to target drug kingpins and their powerful inner circle.
'That puts a target on my back'
For two years, Farfan's nephew, Eduardo Alvarez Farfan, was scared silent.
Eduardo, known as "Pollo" or "Chicken," began running errands, or drug runs, for his uncle when he was 20 or 21 and claims he had no understanding of the scope of the drug ring or the risks he was taking.
"When Eduardo got involved in this he was a very young man, and it was because of a family connection — an uncle who had been involved in Mexico organized crime for decades," his attorney, Matthew A. Schindler, told The Courier Journal, referring to Victor Farfan.
Eduardo began running errands for his uncle, including delivering a bag to an El Salvador native who flew in from Maryland.
Investigators trailed behind Eduardo to the Lloyd Center shopping mall in Portland on July 10, 2018. He handed the bag to Noe Antonio Machado-Medrano, then age 23. Agents followed Machado-Medrano as he took a taxi to a bus station and headed to a bathroom. Police grabbed him, finding two kilos of fentanyl stuffed in a backpack.
"One of the techniques cartels use here in the United States is to take young people and make them responsible for significant amounts of drugs in order to shield themselves," Schindler said.
During Eduardo's detention hearing, prosecutors told the judge the Farfan drug ring was supplied by a Mexican cartel. Hearing the word "cartel" uttered in open court instantly rattled Eduardo.
"That puts a target on my back," he told his attorney. "I don't know who they are, but they know who I am, and they know what's going on here."
"He said: 'I'll do the time. I don't want to put my wife, my family in danger.'"
Eduardo mulled over his future. He knew that cartels have connections inside U.S. prisons. And he realized he faced a mandatory minimum of 10 years if convicted at trial and would miss watching his 6-month-old son grow up.
He also didn't want to be shunned by his close-knit family for betraying his uncle, a senior relative.
He agreed to talk to agents only about certain drug crimes, including detailing his actions and his uncle's actions inside the U.S., after a judge released him from jail on bond — and after his elder family members gave him their blessing. He never mentioned suppliers in Mexico linked to a cartel, or what he called the Mexican mafia.
His cousin, Roberto Carlos Farfan Alvarez, known as "Raton" or "Mouse," pleaded guilty but never talked to police. He knew he faced deportation back within reach of the cartels.
Roberto, 22, had a fiancé and young daughter in Morelia, a city in Michoacán. He initially came to the U.S. to earn money as a mechanic for another relative. But he ended up working for his Uncle Victor.
At first, he supervised work crews at his uncle's construction business building houses, Roberto's attorney, Robert Salisbury, said. But soon, he was asked to deliver drugs.
"He was terrified to talk about this," his attorney told The Courier Journal. "Either you or your family could be killed. There's a serious danger. There's a lot of family back in Michoacán."
Roberto never talked to agents or prosecutors. A judge sentenced Roberto to three years in custody in January 2021. He received credit for time in jail awaiting trial and has since been released and deported.
Last year, a judge sentenced Eduardo to 30 months behind bars, followed by five years supervised release.
"I had a prosecutor who was sympathetic that this guy was just a bond-hit, video-game type of kid," Schindler said. "And that his uncle had manipulated him and used him and his cousin."
Luring in a retired U.S. Marine
In Hillsboro, a suburb 30 minutes west of Portland, a savvy drug cell leader supplied by Victor Farfan seemed untouchable.
Police had long known John Armas was a major meth trafficker, but he was careful. He said very little while chatting on cell phones, and he changed phones a lot.
He ran a drug network that trafficked kilos of meth with help from his then-wife, Socorro Elena Gutierrez, from their Washington County home.
Armas and his wife, known as "Coco," used a handful of drug associates to store and repackage the drugs and drive them to Seaside and surrounding areas. He paid couriers to return the drug profits to him. Armas, in turn, paid Farfan, who then oversaw the flow of money back to cartel members in Mexico.
Armas enlisted help from his neighbors, a retired U.S. Marine and his wife.
The military veteran served in Operation Desert Shield in 1990 and didn't have a criminal history, but he and his wife suffered from addiction. Armas used the couple's home as a drug stash house, paying them with enough meth for their daily fix. Armas also asked them to repackage large amounts of drugs and sell out of their home to users as well as mid-level dealers.
Investigators listened in on several calls between Armas and his neighbors using code to coordinate drug deals.
FBI agents led a raid at the couple's home on Oct. 24, 2018, arresting the 51-year-old military veteran and his 53-year-old wife. The couple's daughter, age 11, also was home. Police found seven guns in the couple's bedroom.
Months later, the veteran texted his adult son about his gratitude that agents arrested him, saving his life. During his three months in jail, he got sober.
"He has transformed his life from being an insular methamphetamine abuser to an active member of the recovery community, mentoring and guiding others who struggle," his attorney argued in a May 6, 2020, sentence memo asking for leniency. By the time of the hearing, the veteran was 560 days sober.
Armas also used a former nurse from Clatsop County who was battling addiction to cart drugs from Hillsboro to the coast.
In May, a judge sentenced Armas to serve seven years and six months in prison, followed by five years of supervision. He had to pay $50,000. In July, Coco was sentenced to time served and released. She must report to a federal probation officer for five years.
Farfan: 'I am not the worst person here'
As Farfan's day of reckoning neared, he and his family pleaded for leniency.
Farfan pleaded guilty in November 2021 to trafficking drugs and illegally reentering the U.S. and was the last of 23 defendants in the case to admit guilt.
His attorney lobbied for 13 years, claiming his client likely couldn't survive a longer prison stint.
During his March sentence hearing, Farfan apologized for his crimes, but insisted, "I've never been a violent person. I hate violence," according to a transcript of the hearing, with Farfan appearing before the judge from prison on Zoom.
"I know that what I committed was wrong, but believe me, I'm not the worst person here. I am a family man. I would like to be able to be with them."
The mother of his two youngest children wrote a letter saying: "He is one of the greatest fathers that there is. He is loving, respectful and a very caring human being."
Prosecutors successfully pushed for 15 years in their sentencing memo, pointing to Farfan's "unwillingness to stop drug trafficking and his unwillingness to remain outside of the United States." Farfan also had to hand over $100,000.
U.S. District Court Judge Michael H. Simon said he was troubled by Farfan's repeated drug crimes dating back at least to 1999.
The judge also noted that while there was no evidence Farfan was physically violent, "the drugs that he played a role in distributing, including as a leader, caused so much harm in our community."
A few instances of the harm: A co-defendant killed himself to avoid prison, and a 9-year-old girl tested positive for meth after her parents helped repackage drugs for resale.
The judge said Farfan's attorney negotiated "a very significant break for him," cutting his possible prison time in half, considering sentencing guidelines called for a sentence of 30 years.
Farfan agreed to forfeit $100,000, and the judge ordered him to remain on supervised release for five years after he serves his time in prison.
When he gets out, he again faces deportation.
Reporter Beth Warren: firstname.lastname@example.org; 502-582-7164; Twitter @BethWarrenCJ.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: El Mencho's Mexican cartel CJNG supplied drugs to Portland, Oregon