WASHINGTON – Federal agents arrested more than 130 alleged drug traffickers from coast-to-coast Tuesday, saying they smuggled heroin from Mexico and even offered phone-up home deliveries like a pizza shop.
Beginning before dawn, Drug Enforcement Administration agents conducted arrest raids and searches from Charleston, S.C., to Los Angeles. They were seeking up to 150 people, about half of them illegal aliens, named in 10 federal indictments and state charges carrying penalties from 5 years to life in prison.
By afternoon, the investigation had produced 138 arrests in 15 U.S. cities, seized more than 47 pounds of Mexican black tar heroin and confiscated more than $500,000 in illegal profits, officials said at a news conference to describe their Operation Black Gold Rush.
"We were able to cripple a sophisticated black tar heroin group from the retail level street dealers up to the regional distribution level," said Michele Leonhart, deputy DEA administrator. "But just as real businesses have CEOs, there's someone higher up in this criminal organization who is calling the shots. And we will continue our efforts until that person is in custody."
Leonhart said brothers Javier and Alberto Sanchez managed the distribution ring. She said Javier was arrested in Nashville, Tenn., but Alberto, under indictment, remains at large in Mexico. She added that people who supplied them with heroin also were at large in Mexico. No arrests were made in Mexico.
"Today we have shut down a U.S. distribution network of the Sanchez organization. We've seized their heroin, taken their money and cut off their ability to distribute illegal drugs in this country," said Alice Fisher, assistant attorney general in charge of the criminal division.
Officials gave this account of how the ring operated:
Among other marketing strategies, the gang preyed on recovering heroin addicts. It sent street dealers out from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. They worked near methadone clinics where addicts receive treatment.
Packaging a quarter to half a gram of heroin in balloons for convenience, the dealers would offer addicts two free balloons if they bought two balloons.
More sophisticated techniques were available for trusted clients. Agents conducted surveillance that showed the gang distributed telephone numbers clients could call. At first a courier would be sent to deliver the heroin to the customer in a car in parking lot, but later, after several sales, clients could call and order delivery of heroin to the front door of their home or to their offices.
The ring smuggled black tar heroin made from poppies grown and refined in Nayarit state on Mexico's west coast to a distribution center in Nashville and from there around the United States, including more cities east of the Mississippi than have been reached by previous Mexican heroin gangs.
Mexican black tar heroin, a dark and sticky substance, is usually only 30 percent to 40 percent pure, well below the purity of Colombian heroin. But some heroin seized in this case was 85 percent pure, officials said. Diluted to street purity, a kilogram or 2.2 pounds of heroin produces more than 1,000 doses.
The gang brought in more than 17 pounds a month, worth about $2 million a month in street sales, officials said. Mexicans illegally entering this country smuggled the heroin by foot and vehicle across the border in Arizona, Texas and California.
Couriers bringing money back were told to buy a clunker vehicle and stash cash throughout its body, drive across the border and dump the vehicle. Other profits were sent back by wire.
The federal investigation began last November after a single heroin seizure in Texarkana, Texas, in cooperation with state and local police.
The investigation was conducted in Nashville, Memphis and Knoxville, Tenn.; Indianapolis; Columbus and Cincinnati, Ohio; Denver, Los Angeles and Riverside, Calif.; Charlotte, N.C.; Columbia, Greenville, Charleston and Florence, S.C., and Phoenix.