Two arrested in alleged heroin trafficking ring

Medford Area Drug and Gang Enforcement investigators arrested two Californians Tuesday who have been linked to a heroin trafficking ring.

The arrests yielded more than a pound of heroin, a half-pound of methamphetamine, two firearms and more than $20,000 in cash, Medford police Lt. Brett Johnson said.

"These suspects are involved in a drug trafficking organization and have made several trips to Southern Oregon to deliver heroin," Johnson said.

MADGE officers, working on intelligence gathered during a lengthy investigation, stopped a vehicle Tuesday in the 700 block of Western Avenue to serve a narcotics search warrant.

Inside the vehicle, officers found packaged brown tar heroin and cash they believed was derived from drug proceeds, Johnson said.

Arrested were Ovacio Felix-Zazueta, 23, of Thermal, Calif., and Patricia Torres-Carrillo, 28, of Indio, Calif.

Both were lodged in the Jackson County Jail on charges of distribution and possession of heroin and conspiracy to distribute heroin.

The traffic stop was part of an investigation involving a heroin ring operating out of Southern California that made inroads in Jackson County, Johnson said.

"We think these guys were big players," Johnson said.

Johnson said the pair spent a lot of time in the sparsely populated area outside San Diego and most likely received heroin shipments from Mexico.

They would then run the heroin up the Interstate 5 corridor, making stops in Jackson County.
"We know they've been through here before," Johnson said.

Johnson said they might have made additional stops in cities along the way to distribute narcotics.

"The half-pound of methamphetamine in and of itself is a big deal," Johnson said. "But they were moving a lot of heroin up here."

Johnson said the heroin was the packaged black tar variety, which is usually injected.

"This is the type of heroin we see the most of these days," Johnson said.

Johnson said there most likely will be additional arrests made in this case.

"We know others were involved in this," Johnson said. "Now it's about arresting them."

In addition to the charges alleged by MADGE, Felix-Zazueta is being held in jail on an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement illegal immigration hold.

"They've been coming up from California for a while and bringing a lot of heroin with them," Johnson said. "These arrests will make an immediate impact in the short term on the availability of heroin in this area."

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471 or email cconrad@mailtribune.com.

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Major drug ring busted in Arizona

TEMPE - Arizona authorities have arrested some 200 people, and seized $7.8 million in cash and more than 1,200 pounds of drugs following an investigation they say has dismantled an "extensive" drug trafficking cell tied to the powerful Sinaloa cartel, federal and state authorities announced Tuesday.

Authorities announcing the 15-month-long investigation said that although the Sinaloa cartel almost immediately regenerates after one of its cells have been taken down, their investigation certainly struck a blow.

"Arresting a drug dealer is one thing but if we can actually follow that backwards and take out the head of the snake of this organization, we exact a lot of pain on those cartels and those folks putting their distribution networks in Arizona," Tempe police Cmdr. Kim Hale said at a news conference announcing the bust.

The 203 people arrested ranged all the way from street dealers and buyers to family members and friends of Sinaloa cartel members who were well-trusted in the organization, said Cmdr. Kim Hale with Tempe police.

The 43 search warrants conducted as part of the investigation led to the seizure of 44 arms that included assault rifles, 650 pounds of marijuana, 435 pounds of methamphetamine, 123 pounds of cocaine and 4.5 pounds of heroin. Combined the drugs are estimated to be worth $12.5 million.

"It's significant enough that I'm sure they recognize it but they're not going to go belly up anytime soon," Hale said. "We can never rest."

The investigation began last year when a Tempe patrol officer pulled over a drug dealer after he saw a street deal. The dealer was later identified as a delivery driver for the drug ring and police said that he delivered methamphetamine to various customers in the Phoenix metro area.

Further investigation led to more extensive undercover work and to local drug dealers throughout the metro area.

Separately, Phoenix agents with the Drug Enforcement Agency had been investigating the ring, so the two joined forces, along with other agencies.

Doug Coleman, acting special agent in charge of the DEA in Arizona, said that he expects further arrests in the case as the investigation continues.

"This is as big a case as gets put together," he said. "I often get asked, ‘OK, what have we done? Is the drug war over? You guys get up here all the time and make these claims about big cases.' So why do we keep doing this?"

He said that as long as tens of thousands of people die in the U.S. every year from drug overdoses, they will continue fighting the drug war. "We will never relent," he said.

He reiterated the strength of the Sinaloa cartel.

"The Sinaloa cartel - that's the biggest and baddest of the drug cartels," he said. "The Sinaloa cartel a transnational, multimillion industry that has tentacles in every state in the U.S. and throughout the world."

Authorities announced a similar bust of the Sinaloa cartel back in October, when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Pinal County Sheriff's Office said they dismantled a drug ring tied to the Sinaloa cartel that they estimated was responsible for smuggling more than $33 million worth of drugs through Arizona's western desert every month for distribution nationwide.

They also estimated that the ring was responsible for smuggling more than 3.3 million pounds of marijuana, 20,000 pounds of cocaine and 10,000 pounds of heroin into the U.S. through Arizona over the past five years. They arrested 22 suspected smugglers tied to the ring following their 17-month operation.

The same week, a drug cartel member deported as part of the bust returned to Arizona and was caught with $1.6 million worth of drugs in just one example of how relentless the Sinaloa cartel can be. Read more about Major drug ring busted in Arizona


Eleven arrested in Ore., Wash. on federal charges in meth distribution ring

Eleven suspects described as “heavy hitting, large scale drug traffickers” were arrested this week on federal charges in connection with a multistate methamphetamine distribution ring, the U.S. District Attorney’s Office for the District of Oregon announced Thursday. Dec. 1, 2011. (Washington County Sheriff's Office)

Eleven suspects described as “heavy hitting, large scale drug traffickers” were arrested this week on federal charges in connection with a multistate methamphetamine distribution ring, the U.S. District Attorney’s Office for the District of Oregon announced Thursday.

The arrests follow a multi-year investigation. According to a federal indictment unsealed Wednesday, the suspects used cell phones to traffic drugs from February of this year to the present. The indictment alleges investigators used court sanctioned wiretaps to capture communication between the defendants and drug supply sources in Mexico.

Law enforcement from federal, Oregon and Washington agencies executed 14 search and arrest warrants on Tuesday and Wednesday, recovering 15 pounds of methamphetamine and heroin, over 20 firearms and large amounts of cash.

The defendants include:

Hugo Gonzalez-Pasaye, aka Gordo, 27, of Hillsboro [ICE Hold}
Adrian Gonzalez-Pasaye, 35, of Vancouver [ICE Hold]
Diego Bermudez-Ortiz, 23, of Hillsboro [ICE Hold]
Edwin Magana-Solis, aka Meno, Roberto Lopez-Delgado, 27, of Hillsboro [ICE Hold]
Mauricio Cruz-Garcia, aka Kalamako of Portland [ICE Hold]
Jose Garcia-Zambrano, 20, of Hillsboro [ICE Hold]
Ricky Valero, 43, of Forest Grove
Gregorio Gutierrez-Montes, aka Goyo, 22, of Portland

The federal charges carry a minimum sentence of 10 years, and a maximum of life in prison.

Multiple agencies assisted in the investigation including: Westside Interagency Narcotics Task Force, DEA, FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service, Oregon State Police, the Vancouver Police Department, Clark County Sheriff’s Office, Washington County Sheriff’s Office, Sherwood Police Department, the Oregon National Guard, the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, the Portland Police Bureau, the Hillsboro Police Department, the Beaverton Police Department, the Clark Skamania Drug Task Force and the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office.

The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. District Attorneys Geoffrey A. Barrow and John C. Laing. 
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Drug cartels pushed from our forests

By this time in recent years, local police agencies already would have trudged miles into remote forestlands to jerk hundreds of thousands of marijuana plants linked to Mexican drug cartels out of the ground and burn them.

The cartels, police say, are responsible for virtually all of the major marijuana gardens on public lands. The "cartel grows," as police call them, are a danger to the public and an environmental catastrophe. Some cartel operations have been booby-trapped and guarded by armed sentinels. Police in Northern California have engaged in gun battles with suspects in large marijuana gardens.

Last year, two Jackson County sheriff's deputies shot and killed a Mexican national suspected of guarding a cartel garden near Salt Creek in northern Jackson County. The deputies believed the man, who was armed with a shotgun but never fired his weapon, was a threat. A grand jury cleared the deputies of wrongdoing in the shooting.

Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters and District Attorney Mark Huddleston declined to release the names of the deputies involved because they feared retribution from a Mexican drug cartel suspected of being responsible for the growing operation.

In 2010, a team formed to fight suspected drug cartels growing marijuana in Southern Oregon forests pulled 125,787 cartel plants with an estimated value of more than $283 million.

This was in line with previous years, when police from various agencies descended into Jackson County's forests to destroy cartel gardens that stretched for miles.

This year, however, the gardens were nowhere to be found.

"We've only been in two cartel gardens in 2011," Winters said. "The number of plants were very low. We saw a 93 percent reduction this year in cartel marijuana in southwest Oregon."

The cartel gardens were such a problem before 2011 that the sheriff formed the Southern Oregon Multi-Agency Marijuana Eradication and Reclamation team, or SOMMER, which covers Jackson, Josephine, Coos, Curry, Douglas, Klamath and Lake counties. SOMMER operates on a $600,000 budget, funded mostly by federal grants. The team's sole purpose is to rid Southern Oregon of cartel gardens.

So, mission accomplished? Not so fast, say law enforcement and civilian authorities on drug cartels.

A shadowy presence

Local cops throw around the word "cartel" when describing the organizations behind large marijuana gardens. But what exactly do they mean when they describe a criminal enterprise run by a "cartel?"

Chris Gibson is the director of Oregon's High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, which funnels $3.16 million in federal grant money to nine Oregon counties to help fight drug distribution.

Because Interstate 5 runs through Jackson County, it is considered a highly traveled corridor for traffickers moving drugs from Los Angeles to Seattle and beyond.

"When we talk about cartels, what comes to mind is seven or eight large drug organizations that operate in Mexico at a given time," Gibson said. "They are the suppliers for most of the drugs that move into Oregon."

The National Drug Intelligence Center recently released its report for 2011. In it, the organization describes seven major cartels that are the most active in moving drugs from Mexico to the United States.

Of these, the Sinaloa Cartel is the most powerful, according to federal officials.

The Sinaloa Cartel is based on Mexico's Pacific Coast and is responsible for much of the drugs moving up and down the Interstate 5 corridor. The Washington Post reports that the Sinaloa Cartel ships hundreds of tons of cocaine, heroin and marijuana into the U.S. each year and is responsible for some of the most heinous acts of violence wracking Mexico, including beheadings and large shootouts in cities across the country.

The Sinaloa Cartel's largest rival is the Tijuana Cartel, which also moves hundreds of tons of marijuana and powder drugs such as cocaine and heroin along the West Coast each year.

The two sides have been at war in recent years over the U.S. Pacific Coast market, which includes the lucrative cities of San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle.

Medford Area Drug and Gang Enforcement supervisor Deputy Chief Tim Doney said it's reasonable to assume the cartels have a presence in Jackson County.

"We have knowledge of specific cartels that have done business in this area," Doney said. "But we don't name them publicly because these cases remain open."

Medford police Lt. Brett Johnson, a MADGE supervisor, said the cartels have a strong influence in the Rogue Valley even though members of the crime organizations are not in the area.

"A lot of the folks we arrest here are the 'expendables,' " Johnson said. "They are low-level dealers with ties to the cartels."

In fact, Gibson said, he doubts a high-ranking cartel member has ever set foot in Oregon.

"You're not going to find these cartels basing an operation in Oregon," Gibson said. "You are just going to find their influence and their dope."

Cartel leaders rarely stray from their home bases in Mexico, according to Winters.

"Why would they take the chance in coming up here when they can send underlings?" Winters said. "It's like a major corporation. The worker on the line doesn't know who the big boss is in another city. The cartels keep it that way because they distance themselves from the street dealers who often get arrested."

Winters added that the men who guard the marijuana gardens often are paid by cartel middle men to tend the crops. They receive a payout at harvest season.

"They probably never speak to the guy at the higher level who funds a particular grow site," Winters said. "But they know if they make a mistake or they don't bring in the profits, then they are in trouble. It could cost them their lives."

Changing tactics

As powerful as Mexico's large cartels are — and there is ample proof they wield much influence in their country's government and financial sectors — they are keen on seeking the path of least resistance when carving marijuana gardens into public forestlands.

Over the past five years, local agencies scoured southwest Oregon forests looking for the large gardens. The unwelcome heat most likely inspired the cartels to move into areas where they can operate without prying eyes.

One of their new targets is the mountains and vast forests of northeastern Oregon.

In June, 91,000 pot plants were pulled in the state's largest reported marijuana garden in the Blue Mountains, just outside Enterprise.

Wallowa County Sheriff Fred Steen said his agency has received solid intelligence that the garden was connected to a Mexican cartel.

"We won't name a particular cartel," Steen said. "But this was a professional operation. They had sleeping areas, water, irrigation, a cooking area. It was a well-organized camp."

Winters said the gardens in Wallowa County closely resembled those previously discovered in Jackson County.

"They just moved into a place where there were hundreds of thousands of miles of wildland and not enough law enforcement to cover it all," Winters said. "It's impossible to patrol that much land, even if you had 100 deputies. This is why this problem is so hard for us to deal with."

Doney said he expects the cartels will try to creep back into Jackson County in the coming years. The weather and the soil are conducive to growing world-class pot, he said.

"There's just too much money to be made here," Doney added. "They'll take every chance they get to make money."

Cornering the meth market

Just because the marijuana gardens have slowed down doesn't mean the cartels aren't cashing in on Jackson County's drug market.

Since 2005, when Oregon banned over-the-counter sales of cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine, a main ingredient in meth, the local meth lab scene has all but dried up.

The cartels were happy to step in and meet the demand, Gibson said.

"I'd say that 97 percent of the meth that comes into Oregon is from cartel-run super labs in Mexico," Gibson said.

Doney agreed, adding that the cartels have the capital to buy meth ingredients by the ton to produce in these labs.

"It's not only meth," Doney said. "These cartels are responsible for most of the cocaine and heroin we see. Just because they aren't moving marijuana in the forests, doesn't mean they aren't selling powder drugs."

In fact, Johnson said that despite the curtailing of pseudoephedrine, there's as much meth in Oregon as there ever has been.

"It's now coming from these super labs run by cartels," Johnson said. "Meth labs in Oregon have gone the way of the dinosaur."

The U.S. Department of Justice supports MADGE's claims, saying that the movement of meth from Mexico into the Pacific Northwest is gaining steam.

The agency comes to a bleak conclusion concerning the influence Mexican cartels will have in the Pacific Northwest's drug market in the coming years.

The agency cites the cartels' near monopoly of smuggling routes in the U.S.'s southwest border regions and their ability to "produce (or obtain), transport, and distribute nearly every major illicit drug of abuse in the United States."

The power of the cartels will not wane anytime soon, despite the governments of both Mexico and the U.S. spending hundreds of millions each year on efforts to fight the cartel influence.

"Major Mexican-based (cartels) and their associates are solidifying their dominance of the U.S. wholesale drug trade and will maintain their reign for the foreseeable future," the Department of Justice said in its report.

According to the Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program, a program of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, 10.3 million marijuana plants were pulled nationally in 2010 — about 2 million more than in 2008.

Nearly half of the plants were found on federal lands.

  • Data from the U.S. Forest Service and Department of Interior, which oversees Bureau of Land Management property, indicate that a combined total of nearly 4.6 million plants — 44 percent of all marijuana eradicated nationally — came from federal lands during 2010.
  • According to the USFS, the number of plants eradicated from national forests increased dramatically in each of the past five years, reaching a new record in 2010 — 3.5 million plants. The number of national forests where grow sites were eradicated increased from 55 forests in 2008 to 59 forests in 2009.
  • National forests in California account for the largest plant eradication total from public lands in any region. In 2010, almost all marijuana — 3.1 million of 3.5 million plants — eradicated from national forests was found on 16 national forests in California.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471 or email cconrad@mailtribune.com. Read more about Drug cartels pushed from our forests



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