In April 2009, Mexico's ruthless Gulf Cartel had a Baltimore problem.
Officers with the Drug Enforcement Administration had found an associate of the cartel in an Inner Harbor hotel room with more than $600,000 in alleged drug proceeds.
When the officers seized the money, prosecutors say, the cartel wanted answers. But the man they sent to investigate would himself be busted by the FBI.
Alex Mendoza-Cano would turn informant — and federal prosecutors say his testimony in U.S. District Court this week against two men charged in a cocaine conspiracy provides insight into how Mexican cartels are operating in Baltimore and other U.S. cities.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter M. Nothstein told jurors Tuesday that during the course of the trial they would hear things "you've only seen on TV and in movies."
Mendoza-Cano described driving across the country in a mobile home packed with millions of dollars' worth of cocaine. Testifying through an interpreter on Wednesday, he discussed staying in fancy hotels and dining at fine restaurants to set up contacts, and outlined how drugs are smuggled into the country by boat, personal watercraft and tractor-trailer, directed from Mexico by cartel members with two-way radios.
"The Mexican impact is here, and it's not just in the past six months," Carl J. Kotowski, special agent in charge of the DEA's Baltimore field office, said in an interview. "Increasingly, they have people they can call up here to get product into the city."
Complicating the case is the participation of disgraced Baltimore Police Officer Mark Lunsford, a DEA task force member who has since been convicted and sent to prison for skimming money from informant payouts.
Lunsford is believed to have taken an expensive watch and clothing belonging to one of the defendants in the 2009 arrest, and defense attorneys have repeatedly invoked his name in an attempt to cast doubt on the quality of the larger investigation.
The defendants, an East Baltimore phone store owner named Wade Coats and a Dallas car dealer named Jose Cavazos, are charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine. Coats is also charged with using a firearm in a drug trafficking crime.
To prosecute Coats, 45, and Cavazos, 43, authorities have attempted to sandwich them with testimony from two men on opposite ends of the alleged distribution chain who have already pleaded guilty.
Defense attorneys say the witnesses are criminals who will say anything to save themselves. Not having found drugs on the defendants, attorney Thomas M. Donnelly said, prosecutors are relying on "huge inferences."
The witnesses were "caught red-handed, and they've made a deal to save their own skin," said Donnelly, who is representing Coats.
Neither defendant on trial this week was on the radar of local law enforcement on April 28, 2009, when city officers assigned to work with the DEA established surveillance near the Milan restaurant and club in the 1000 block of Eastern Avenue.
Their target: Ronald Brown, 44, a convicted drug dealer who confidential sources said was distributing large amounts of heroin and cocaine on the city's east side.
Brown was seen meeting with a man unknown to law enforcement — later determined to be Coats — and exchanging what authorities say was cash. When the men parted, prosecutors say, Detective David Clasing tailed Coats to the Marriott Waterfront Hotel.
Detectives led by Officer Brian Shutt obtained search warrants for a hotel room booked in Coats' name, and encountered Cavazos, prosecutors say. Inside they found several phones and a suitcase containing heat-sealed bricks of cash wrapped in aluminum foil. The total: $275,000.
"I am just the money counter — no drugs in the room," Cavazos told authorities, according to court records.
In the parking garage, officers located a vehicle with Texas license plates registered to a relative of Cavazos, prosecutors say. They found another $335,000 in heat-sealed bricks in a suitcase in the trunk.
Agents swarmed Coats, an unassuming man with glasses and a mustache who is of Jamaican descent, in East Baltimore. Prosecutors say he was carrying $7,000 in cash and a firearm, and was taken into custody.
Authorities had tons of cash, and drugs were recovered from Brown. But a broader link would come with the arrest of Mendoza-Cano in an unrelated investigation in Texas.
The men testifying against Coats and Cavazos offer insight into the lifestyles of those at either spectrum of the world of drugs.
Brown, who at 6-foot-6, 240 pounds has earned the nickname "Truck," described how he tried to live a clean life after being released from prison. He worked as a forklift operator for years, until his company filed for bankruptcy and he lost his job.
He went back to selling narcotics, he said, through a contact of his estranged daughter. He winced in court each time defense attorneys called him a "drug dealer."