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Contraband
04/25/2011

5 members of multi-million dollar drug and money smuggling cell plead guilty

More than $2.1 million in assets seized to date

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas - Five members and principal leaders of an illegal drug and money transportation cell based in Brownsville, Texas, pleaded guilty on Monday to smuggling into the U.S. and transporting hundreds of kilograms of cocaine, along with millions of dollars in drug proceeds. These guilty pleas were announced by U.S. Attorney José Angel Moreno, Southern District of Texas. The investigation led by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).

Arturo Gomez, 31, is one of the cell leaders, owner and operator of an auto shop in Brownsville, Texas, that was used as a receiving/delivery and loading point for cocaine and drug proceeds. Magda Zendejas, 28, is a manager in the group responsible for recruiting drivers for load vehicles. Reyna Ceballos, 21, is Zendejas' niece and contraband transporter. Julio Gonzalez, 45, is Reyna Ceballos' father, and also a contraband transporter. And David Alcala, 30, is Gomez's "right-hand man" at the auto shop/stash location. They all pleaded guilty April 25 before Senior U.S. District Judge Hayden Head for their involvement in a cocaine trafficking and money laundering conspiracy in the Corpus Christi Division. A sixth defendant, Vanessa Weaver, 28, pleaded guilty on April 14 for her role as a bulk cash transporter for this cell.

All of defendants were arrested on March 2 by agents after a four-count indictment against them was retuned on Feb. 23. A superseding indictment was issued on March 23 to include an additional charge and notice of intent to criminally forfeit $524,910. The government alleges that this money constitutes the proceeds of their drug trafficking activity, or it was used to facilitate the criminal activity.

According to court documents, Arturo Gomez with the assistance of David Alcala operated an auto shop called Arizpe Auto Glass located on the 3800 block of N. Expressway in Brownsville, Texas. In July 2009, the business was moved to the 2400 block of E. 14th Street in Brownsville, following the arrest of two drivers with a load of cocaine. The business was renamed Arezpe No. 1 State Inspection and Auto Glass; and it was re-located again to the 2000 block of Southmost Road in Brownsville. The auto shop was actually a stash house for cocaine smuggled into the United States in hidden compartments of vehicles by other members of the transportation group. It was also the collection point for drug proceeds from Atlanta, Ga., and Dallas, Texas. At the auto shop, Gomez received cocaine smuggled by Zendejas, as well as transporters recruited by her.

Between 2009 and 2011, hundreds of kilograms of cocaine were smuggled into the United States through Brownsville to Atlanta, Ga., and Dallas, Texas. The cocaine was loaded into vehicles either sent by the distributer in Atlanta or in vehicles obtained by members of this transportation cell for delivery to points north and further distribution. Millions of dollars in drug proceeds were delivered to the auto shop by members of the transportation cell for smuggling into Mexico.

During the course of this investigation, agents have seized and administratively forfeited about $1.3 million, with $524,000 seized on the day of Gomez's arrest. A civil suit has been filed to forfeit a 38-acre tract in Commerce, Ga., worth $700,000, and other actions against real property are anticipated. Additionally, about 20 vehicles seized are worth well over $300,000 and administratively forfeited to the United States.

Arturo Gomez, Magda Zendejas, Reyna Ceballos, Julio Gonzalez, and David Alcala, were all convicted of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine. Each defendant faces no less than 10 years in prison, and up to life imprisonment. Arturo Gomez was also convicted of conspiracy to launder monetary instruments, which carries maximum punishment of 20 years in prison. Vanessa Weaver pleaded guilty to and was convicted of bulk cash smuggling and faces a maximum of five years in prison. As part of their plea agreement, Gomez and Alcala have agreed to forfeit the $524,910 that was seized on March 2 during their arrests.

Weaver is scheduled to be sentenced June 30. The other defendants are scheduled to be sentenced Aug. 4, all remain in federal custody without bond, pending sentencing.

This Organized Criminal Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF) investigation dubbed, "Operation Stained Glass," led to the criminal charges. The multi-agency investigation was spearheaded by ICE HSI, with agents from the Internal Revenue Service's Criminal Investigations (IRS-CI), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and the U.S. Marshal Service (USMS), with assistance from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Julie K. Hampton, Southern District of Texas, is prosecuting the case.