A classic drug lord she was not.
For starters, Elisa Castillo, a 53-year-old grandmother, had no prior criminal record and was so poor she pawned her jewelry to pay the rent on her southwest Houston shack. A son used his credit card to pay her electric bill.
All she wanted, she claims, was a bus to run and a man to love.
She got both. And that’s when the trouble started.
She was sentenced last month for her role in a major drug conspiracy and sent to prison for life without the possibility of parole.
Castillo’s downfall shows that in the high-stakes world of borderland drug trafficking, unlikely players are lured and the U.S. government will pull no punches in putting them away.
It was at the urging of her boyfriend that Castillo become partners with a smooth-talking Gulf Cartel-connected gangster in Mexico who wanted to set up a Houston-based bus company that would cater to immigrants. Everything, including the buses, which were bought in cash, was kept in her name.
But instead of being filled with passengers, the three buses were outfitted with secret compartments used to shuttle thousands of pounds of cocaine north into the United States and millions of dollars in profits back to Mexico. Castillo claims she didn’t know it was a clandestine drug operation.
Federal agents didn’t buy it. At the very least, authorities said, she should have known something was wrong when bulk money and drugs were repeatedly found on the company’s coaches.
“We understand that just because you never saw any dope — smelled it, touched it or tasted it — doesn’t mean you weren’t involved in the conspiracy,” said Violet Szeleczky, spokeswoman for the Drug Enforcement Administration’s regional office in Houston. “She thought she was so insulated that nobody would catch her.”
For Castillo, it all began eight years ago when she fell for Martin Ovalle, a married bus driver six years her junior, whom she got to know while taking regular bus trips from Dallas to Monterrey to visit her sickly mother.
She later became a bus-station ticket taker but dreamed of more. She wanted a bus of her own, even though she couldn’t afford one.
“God, I ask you to please help me to buy a bus, I want a bus,” she scrawled in a handwritten spiral notebook back in 2005.
Her true passion was Ovalle, whose name is tattooed on her lower back and shoulder.
"Martin Ovalle, you have to love me … because I am more powerful than you and I order it," she wrote in her notebook, confiscated by the DEA. Castillo’s attorney, Charles Banker, sought leniency in part by contending she was naive, easily duped and hung on Ovalle’s every word.
Ovalle, in fact, introduced Castillo to Patricio Reynoso Galaviz, who supposedly had a bus company in Mexico and wanted to expand north of the border but needed a partner who legally resided in the United States to help him secure permits.
Reynoso, who remains a fugitive, would deposit money in Castillo’s bank account to cover company expenses, but prosecutors concede she never once got the $14,000 monthly salary she was promised.
Castillo’s attorney acknowledges most people would have had a clue.
“The warning bells which should have sounded in the head of a reasonable, prudent, normal person simply were not triggered for Elisa Castillo when the government seizures of drugs and money began to transpire,”
he wrote in court papers.
In a DEA recording of a phone conversation between Castillo and one of Castillo’s drivers, who called her after he’d been busted with drugs, she was strangely unemotional.
She didn’t blow her top or ask him what drugs he was talking about. She asked him if he could find a ride back to Houston.
As U.S. District Judge Sim Lake prepared to sentence her last month for the conspiracy that involved drugs and money laundering, a shackled Castillo stood her ground.
“I am not guilty of this,” she told Lake. “I didn’t know anything.”
The judge, based on her being a manager in the conspiracy, followed federal guidelines for how much time she’d receive.
Looking on was the so-called love of her life, Ovalle, who moments later was sentenced to just 25 years.
The two are forbidden to have any contact and probably will never see each other again.