A 9-month investigation ended with the indictment of 85 people accused of participating in a massive county-wide drug ring tied to the Sinaloa Cartel, federal officials announced Thursday in San Diego.
From July 2018 to April 2019, wiretaps of alleged prominent narcotics dealers showed the presence of a large, multi-network system throughout the region, according to court records.
“As of today, a majority of the 85 defendants are in custody,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Matt Sutton.
Drug Enforcement Administration officials seized about 175 pounds of meth, heroin, and fentanyl, court documents said. Agents also discovered $50,000 in cash, multiple firearms, and a 2020 Cadillac Escalade, which is valued at $115,000.
“This case started from small beginnings. It targeted street-level heroin and methamphetamine dealers who were operating in East County San Diego,” Sutton said.
On Sept. 13, a federal grand jury in Southern California returned indictments that charged a total of 85 defendants. Six days later, federal agents served eight search warrants in connection to the alleged drug ring’s operations.
“All levels of the organization, from the heads of this organization to its sources of supply to its subdistributors to its money-laundering facilitators – every aspect of these networks was targeted in today’s indictments,” Sutton said.
Officials primarily seized drugs in San Diego County, Sutton said, though some drug seizures took place in Los Angeles, Riverside, and Alaska.
“Around the same time that those indictments were unsealed, hundreds of federal, state, and local agents and officers arrested dozens of defendants and searched more than a dozen locations throughout San Diego County,” said First Assistant United States Attorney Peter Mazza.
On Thursday, federal and local officials came together to present their findings from the year-long investigation, including five rounds of wiretapping and surveillance.
Sutton said officials used “every investigative technique under the sun,” including undercover agents and the latest in wiretapping technology.
In April 2018, Amira Guadalupe Novelo-Torres helped federal agents connect with prominent narcotics dealers in unincorporated areas of El Cajon, court documents said. Novelo-Torres was in state custody pending deportation to Mexico at the time.
An undercover agent then conducted controlled purchases of meth and heroin with Novelo-Torres’ guidance from April to June of that year. These deals brought Oscar Clemente-Perez, Anton Dockery, Juan Carlos Ochoa, and Belinda Maria Menke under investigation as alleged dealers or suppliers.
In July 2018, officials wire-tapped Clemente-Perez’ and Dockery’s communications, court documents said. Until August of that year, agents said they intercepted their messages to confirm Dockery’s supply came from a larger drug ring allegedly controlled by Ochoa and Menke. Records showed other individuals were supposed subdistributors for the network, including Lorena Torres and Rene Valdez, Jr.
Further interceptions of these defendants in August and September of 2018 showed a much larger drug ring in play, including another, separate distribution network allegedly led by Valdez.
A third round of wire interceptions of the above defendants began in October and through November 2018.
In between the second and third round of interceptions, as well as during the third round of interceptions, federal and local agencies coordinated multiple seizures of meth and heroin from these networks and other related networks.
A fourth round of communication interceptions lasted from December 30, 2018, to January 28, court documents said. During this time, Alfonso Arroyo was discovered to have apparently directed his own meth distribution network, which involved at least seven others. Agents seized one pound of meth from this network during this time.
In March 2019, a fifth round of wiretapping began to monitor prolific leaders in these drug networks, court records said, including Arroyo, Douglas Bowen, Samuel Becerra, and Javier Vergara. Agents later discovered Becerra supposedly directed his own meth network, which also included at least seven people.
An affidavit said the involved drug networks were “responsible for laundering tens of thousands of dollars in narcotics proceeds for the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico.”
Mazza said it was “one of the Southern District of California’s most significant international drug trafficking enforcement activity in recent memory.”
The investigation is on-going.
Thursday’s press conference was held at the Drug Enforcement Agency’s San Diego office on Viewridge Avenue in Kearny Mesa. The event began at 2 p.m.
Ed. Note: A previous version of this article wrongly attributed the drug networks to the El Cajon area. While at least one defendant lives in the unincorporated areas of El Cajon, the drug rings span the entire county, even reaching Los Angeles, Riverside, and Alaska. We regret the error.