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HSI arrests 7 members of international drug trafficking organization

Criminal network attempted to smuggle more than 2 tons of marijuana through El Paso bridges

HSI arrests 7 members of international drug trafficking organization
HSI arrests 7 members of international drug trafficking organization

EL PASO, Texas — Seven members of a drug smuggling organization remain in custody after special agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) arrested them Tuesday.

The following seven were indicted and charged with conspiracy to import a controlled substance and conspiracy to possess a controlled substance with intent to distribute: David Villanueva, 23; Martin Belmontes, 30; Mary Ann Briseño, 20; Elvis Medina, 23; Jesus Eduardo Palacios, 19; Gustavo Garcia Jr., 20; and Elsie Hernandez, 60.

All the defendants, except for Hernandez, were arrested in El Paso; Hernandez was arrested in Farmington, N.M.

According to court documents, several of the defendants attempted to smuggle loads of marijuana into the United States through the El Paso ports of entry between Feb. 28, 2009 and July 13, 2011. Still others made smuggling attempts through Aug. 10, 2012. During this investigation, the criminal organization attempted to smuggle about 4,500 pounds of marijuana through the El Paso ports of entry.

"These arrests send a strong message: El Paso will not be a transshipment point for criminals seeking to smuggle drugs into the United States," said Dennis A. Ulrich, special agent in charge of HSI El Paso. "HSI and its federal and local law enforcement partners are committed to working together to stop the flow of illegal narcotics into our country."

The defendants had their initial appearances in federal court Wednesday, and are scheduled to have their arraignment and bond hearings Monday.

If convicted, they all face a maximum sentence of 40 years in federal prison and a $5 million fine.

The El Paso Sheriff's Department assisted with this investigation.

HSI encourages the public to report any suspicious activity through its toll-free hotline at 1-866-347-2423 or by completing its online tip form. Both are staffed around the clock by investigators. The online tip form may be accessed following this link: http://www.ice.gov/webform/hsi-tip-form