LOS ANGELES – A federal drug task force arrested 18 people Thursday linked to three drug trafficking organizations that smuggled narcotics from Mexico inside PVC pipe typically hidden in the axles of commercial trucks that ended up at truck yards in South Los Angeles and southern Los Angeles County.
The 18 defendants arrested Thursday are among 57 defendants charged in two indictments and one criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court. Authorities continue to search for the remaining defendants. During the course of the probe, which started in early 2011, authorities seized more than 2,400 pounds of methamphetamine, 30 kilograms of cocaine, 16 kilograms of white heroin, 20 kilograms of brown heroin, and more than $1.2 million in suspected narcotics proceeds, along with 18 firearms. Thursday’s enforcement actions resulted in the seizure of an additional seven pounds of methamphetamine, three firearms, four vehicles, approximately $50,000 in cash and an operational methamphetamine laboratory.
"As the means and methods that drug trafficking organizations use evolve, so will law enforcement evolve to meet the challenge," said U.S. Attorney André Birotte Jr. "The allegations here describe a wide-ranging conspiracy to exploit aspects of our nation’s trucking and transportation system and funnel enormous amounts of dangerous narcotics into this country. The arrests we announce today dismantle that conspiracy and disrupt this threat to public safety."
The investigations that led to Thursday’s takedown were conducted by the Los Angeles High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA)/Southern California Drug Task Force, a federally funded group comprised of federal and local law enforcement agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), and Internal Revenue Service -Criminal Investigation. The Azusa, South Gate and Whittier police departments along with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department provided substantial assistance with the case.
"Through the cooperation of federal, state and local law enforcement, thousands of pounds of methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin have been seized, with a combined street value in the tens of millions of dollars," said Anthony Williams, DEA special agent in charge. "These drugs were en-route to our communities and neighborhoods. Today’s arrests have taken those responsible for distributing these dangerous drugs off our streets to face justice in federal court."
"The criminal networks targeted in this case exploited one of the nation’s busiest transportation corridors to mask the movement of staggering amounts of contraband - the volume of methamphetamine being smuggled by these organizations is virtually unprecedented," said Claude Arnold, special agent in charge for HSI Los Angeles. "Today, as a result of our collective enforcement efforts, we’ve literally knocked the wheels off of a highly sophisticated drug distribution scheme that had ties to at least five states."
The investigation initially looked into a drug trafficking organization run by Mexico-based Miguel Angel Molinero-Castro. Molinero’s organization used truck yards in South Gate and Wilmington to receive large quantities of controlled substances hidden in PVC pipes that were further concealed in tractor trailer axles.
According to the criminal complaint that charged Molinero and 37 others connected to the alleged drug trafficking ring, Molinero arranged for narcotics to be transported via truck from Mexico to Nogales, Ariz., where co-conspirators would take control of the shipments. The narcotics were then transported either to other distributors in Arizona or to the Los Angeles area.
The criminal complaint charges 38 defendants with two counts: conspiracy to distribute controlled substances and possession with intent to distribute controlled substances.
A related indictment charges eight defendants involved in another drug distribution ring that also allegedly smuggled narcotics from Mexico into the U.S. inside PVC pipes hidden inside truck axles.
An indictment in a third case charges eight defendants in a conspiracy to distribute heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine. This case concerns narcotics smuggled from Mexico in PVC pipes and distributed from a truck yard in South Gate.
Additional agencies that aided with this investigation and Thursday’s takedown include, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Los Angeles-SRT; the U.S. Marshals Service; the Ventura County Combined Agency Team (VCAT); the California Highway Patrol; the California Multi-Jurisdictional Methamphetamine Enforcement Team; the Los Angeles Interagency Metropolitan Police Apprehension Crime Team; and the Anaheim Police Department.