By Farrah Fazal
GRANITE CITY, Ill. (KSDK) - Sometimes it's slow and steady. Sometimes it's hard and loud. Every time a train comes down the tracks in Granite City, Ill., it's as much a part of the town as the people who come to the Park Grill.
"They come in and give me a bunch of trouble, and I send them home with a smile," said one of the waitresses of a group or retired regulars who come in every Friday for their "meet and eat." Everybody here knows your name.
"We are simple, good, people," said Carol Hancock, sitting on her front porch swing, watching her neighbors on her quiet little street. She moved back to Granite City a few years ago, back to the place she calls home. What she didn't know is that her home used to be one of at least two "stash houses" where dealers hid drugs, just two blocks away from the police department.
Granite City officers found the stash home after a pizza delivery man said he smelled marijuana. Lt. Craig Knight and his officers didn't find drugs. They found a guy who answered the door with the name Chavez tattooed on his body; not his real name, as officers would later discover. A shotgun was in the back bedroom.
"He was a major player in a drug ring that ranged from Mexico to the Midwest," said Lt. Knight.
Twelve miles south, Caseyville police pulled over a woman named Sandra Seman. They discovered she was a street level drug dealer.
Those two arrests opened the door to what the feds call "Operation Midwest Express."
"Granite City was ground zero for the distribution of cocaine in the Metro East area," said Steven Wigginton, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Illinois.
Federal investigators discovered the Metro East and the St. Louis area were now one of the Mexican cartel capitals of the Midwest.
Federal and state drug agents, small town cops, the U.S. and state attorneys were dealing with a powerful enemy called the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico. The United States government considers the Sinaloa cartel "the most powerful drug trafficking organization in the world."
Sinaloa cartel members get drugs into the U.S. on ships in the Pacific Ocean, rafts across the Rio Grande River, semi trucks on highways and single engine planes across the Southwest border.
The pieces of Operation Midwest Express came together between 2008 and 2011. Small level dealers reported to a regional guy. He decided which dealer would get how much of the cocaine shipment, which would depend upon the amount he received. He answered to distributors and stash house operators. Drug couriers were the next step up. They were the people whom law enforcement would seize drugs and cash from. The cartel quickly replaced the arrested couriers. The second in command of the cartel network, Ivan Vasquez-Gonzalez, lived in Granite City until he was promoted to Chicago to work with his boss, Saul Ruelas-Valdovinos.
Ruelas-Valdovinos reported directly to the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico.
Wigginton said the vast majority of the cocaine came into the Metro East and St. Louis area from Chicago through interstates 55, 57, 70 and 64 to stash houses in Granite City, Fairmont City and Collinsville.
"They're able to get it right to the street level, to the place where kids are playing, where mothers and fathers are hanging out," said St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly. The drugs ended up in front yards, backyards and on streets.
Police surveillance video, obtained by NewsChannel 5, shows drug dealers selling crack in East St. Louis.
"What you have at this level, is a street level dealer who is five or six degrees removed from the cartel but they're connected," said Kelly.
A special drug unit of the Illinois State Patrol set up a similar kind of surveillance in Operation Midwest Express.
"We go to the street level distributor (and say) 'where do you get your cocaine?' We go to the next person, 'where did you get your cocaine?'" Wigginton said.
The lower level dealers started talking. Officers started finding drugs, guns and money all travelling the same highways in and out of Chicago. Investigators found cars with dummy floorboards, or hallowed out car doors where dealers would hide money and drugs.
At least $9 million worth of drugs and 250 kilos of cocaine flowed into the St. Louis area.
"There's a big demand for cocaine. So long as there's a demand, the cartels will be the suppliers," said Wigginton.
Operation Midwest Express took down a network of thirty people running all connected to the Sinaloa cartel. Investigators stopped the shootouts and beheadings in Mexico from spilling into the Metro East. They know wherever drugs are, violent crime follows.
Wigginton knows the fight isn't over. The cartel is back in business on the highways, the small towns and the neighborhoods where people like Carol Hancock live.
"This will always be home," she said.
Hancock said she is not moving. The town where the trains never stop running is now the place where the cops want to know everybody's name.