Mexican drug traffickers are funneling cocaine to Italian organized crime, and some shipments are moving through Dallas.
"We've got some of the major cartel members established here dealing their wares in Europe," said James Capra, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Dallas office.
Experts say warring cartels battered by unprecedented U.S. and Mexican government crackdowns are increasingly looking to Europe as an expansion market. Across the Atlantic, demand for cocaine is high and prices are up. A kilo sold for $20,000 in Dallas is worth up to three times as much overseas, experts say.
Mexican cartel operatives in North Texas "are dealing with Italy, Spain, you name it," he said. "They can operate their logistical center from here and coordinate between Mexico, Central America and Europe."
Italian capos are venturing to North Texas to get in on the action, says one mob expert.
"Places like Houston and Dallas are where these criminal organizations are most likely to invest their money," said Antonio Nicaso, an internationally recognized author and lecturer on Italian organized crime. "This is the right time, with the recession going on."
Dallas has long been a recognized distribution hub for drugs smuggled up the Interstate 35 corridor from Laredo. From here, narcotics head out across the country to Atlanta, Chicago, New England and elsewhere.
The revelation that the cartels are forming alliances with Italian syndicates came last year when the DEA revealed that the Mexican Gulf cartel, which supplies Dallas with cocaine, was working with New York associates of the powerful Italian 'Ndrangheta mafia.
Last August, the DEA arrested a Dallas County jailer accused of tipping off drug dealers to what appeared to be a small-time local narcotics conspiracy. The jailer, Brenda Medina Salinas, has pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing. As others pleaded guilty and court documents piled up, it became clear that the drug pipeline in that case reached all the way to Europe and the clandestine world of the Camorra.
The Naples-based Camorra traces its roots to the 16th century. Ruthlessly violent when they need to be, Camorra members often smuggle behind quiet business fronts. They're known to work across ethnic and political lines.
Relatively little is known about the local Camorra associate, other than that he had ties to Dallas, Houston and Mexico.
The Camorra associate was not charged in the case because agents had not developed enough information to nab him when they were forced to act because of Salinas' leaking information to co-conspirators.
Agents learned the Camorra associate's name last May. That's when DEA agents monitoring a meeting between him and his local contacts asked Dallas police to pull over the Camorra associate's car and check his identity.
He had just met with Higinio "Gino" Hernandez, a 30-year-old flooring installer from Carrollton, and Altin Kore, a 32-year-old Dallas man also charged in conspiracy. Kore is charged in the case but is a fugitive. Hernandez has pleaded guilty.
The DEA began investigating the Hernandez network after being tipped by Italian authorities in the fall of 2007. Their wiretaps on Camorra associates in Italy revealed a Dallas cocaine supplier.
Higinio Hernandez was close to his brother Henry "Tito" Hernandez, 34, of Dallas, who has also pleaded guilty. A third brother, Luis, 35, has been charged but is a fugitive.
Henry and Higinio worked for years as flooring installer subcontractors for Carpet One in Southlake.
"They were leading a double life," said prosecutor Ernest Gonzalez in Plano. "They were doing flooring by day, and at night they were conducting these drug transactions."
It was obvious to those around them that laying floors was not their only source of income.
When they were arrested last fall, federal agents seized Higinio's Cadillac Escalade and Lexus IS30, as well as Henry's Escalade.
Henry and Luis kept snapshots of themselves partying in limos with friends, booze and women. They also had dealings in Cuba, authorities say.
"They didn't hide their money," Gonzalez said.
Authorities say Higinio's supplier in Mexico was half brother Rodolfo Lopez, 35, another fugitive charged in the case.
While living in the U.S., Lopez forged the relationship with the Camorra associate and dealt with cocaine producers in Colombia and elsewhere, authorities say. Lopez eventually relocated to Mexico, where authorities say he directed shipments to his brothers in Dallas.
From Dallas, the cocaine was taken to Houston, where the Camorra associate operated a scented candle export business. It took about a month for the cocaine, smuggled amongst the candles, to make the voyage across the Atlantic to Italy.
Major ports attract Italian organized crime syndicates, which operate in at least 19 U.S. cities, according to the Justice Department's latest Drug Threat Assessment.
The Hernandez case is considered somewhat of an anomaly among law enforcement. Federal agents for years have said that the mafia has no significant grip here.
Still, after a lull, mob influence nationwide seems to be increasing, experts say. Much of their work is partnering with the Mexican distributors and Colombian producers and supplying Europe with cocaine.
It's a good time to expand to Europe, as crackdowns on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border have made smuggling cocaine into Texas increasingly difficult. In the past year, authorities have arrested more than 500 Gulf Cartel and 750 rival Sinaloa Cartel members here and in Mexico.
Extraditions of Mexican narcos to the U.S. for prosecution are on the rise under President Felipe Caldern, who has deployed military troops to quell violence in border towns.
Still, a downside to dabbling in international markets is the increased scrutiny by a larger net of law enforcement agencies - which is what stopped the Hernandez ring.
Last spring, DEA agents in Dallas learned that a meeting was to take place between Higinio and the Camorra associate. On May 15, agents set up surveillance at a Chili's restaurant on Knox Street in Dallas.
It was not a pleasant meeting for Higinio. DEA agents were watching as the Italian poked a finger in his chest. The cocaine they were selling wasn't pure enough, he told Hernandez. Customers were complaining.
After the meeting, Higinio reached out to his brother, Henry, to see if his own supplier, Moises Duarte, could get purer powder.
But agents were forced to swoop in before any more cocaine made it to Italy.
The reason: Brenda Salinas. The 23-year-old befriended Henry Hernandez and Duarte on the club scene in Dallas, and eventually dated both men.
As a jailer with Dallas County, she had access to law enforcement databases. In July, when agents learned that she was feeding both men information, DEA agents felt they had to act. They arrested Duarte and set up stings on his cohorts.
So far, nine defendants - including Salinas - have pleaded guilty. Among them is an Albanian financial consultant from Dallas. He has ties to an ex-stockbroker being investigated by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in connection with an alleged pump-and-dump stock scam.
According to the DEA, the investigation is ongoing.