- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A federal grand jury in Washington has indicted nine people on charges of conspiring to sell large quantities of crystal methamphetamine in the nation’s capital as part of an operation directed by drug-cartel bosses in Mexico, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said Wednesday.

The indictments were returned Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia following the arrest of eight of the nine suspects at various locations in Atlanta and Winston-Salem, N.C. The ninth person remains at large.

“This was an extremely dangerous operation, and I applaud the officers from the Metropolitan Police Department’s Narcotics and Special Investigations Division for their selfless and heroic actions,” said MPD Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier. “With the assistance of our federal partners, we are happy to send the resounding message that this city will not tolerate the proliferation of drugs, and anyone who tries to do so will be arrested and prosecuted.”

Authorities seized more than 50 pounds of methamphetamine, 6 pounds of marijuana, three firearms and $35,000 in cash during searches last week. In addition, 5 pounds of methamphetamine, 2.2 pounds of cocaine and 5 pounds of marijuana were recovered in the weeks leading to the arrests.

According to Metropolitan Police estimates, the street value of the seized drugs was more than $3.5 million.

The indictment says the drug operation was tied to La Familia, a violent Mexico-based gang that has killed 20 Mexican federal police and military officers in attacks this year. According to an affidavit in the case, the cartel is known to distribute large quantities of cocaine, marijuana and crystal methamphetamine.

Based in the Mexican state of Michoacan, about 100 miles southeast of Guadalajara, La Familia has quietly moved its drug operations into the United States. It is one of the Mexican government’s highest priorities in its often deadly war against drug-trafficking gangs. Formerly allied with the infamous Gulf cartel, it split off on its own in 2006.

In highly publicized incidents last year, La Familia members launched a series of attacks against Mexican federal police officers and military members after the arrest of some of the gang’s high-level members.

In one incident, the gang killed a dozen federal anti-drug agents in an ambush and dumped their bodies on a mountain highway with a note saying, “We will be waiting for you here.” Six federal police officers and two soldiers also have died in cartel attacks on police stations and at hotels where the agents were staying.

The Washington indictment was announced by Chief Lanier, U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr., and John P. Torres, who heads ICE’s homeland security investigations.

“These arrests and seizures cut off a pipeline for trafficking dangerous narcotics from Mexican drug traffickers into the Washington, D.C., area and along the Northeast Corridor,” Mr. Machen said. “Our success in shutting down this operation was the result of rock-solid partnerships among federal and local law enforcement. Together, we will continue to disrupt and dismantle drug-trafficking organizations that threaten our community.”

Mr. Torres said drug-trafficking organizations such as La Familia must be attacked aggressively at all levels - from the street dealer to the international supplier and cartel leaders.

“Through the coordinated efforts of our federal, state and local law enforcement partners, we have effectively stopped this organization from expanding its market into the Washington, D.C., area,” he said.

One of the suspected smugglers, Esteban Almontes Rodriguez, 25, most recently of Temple Hills, Md., is described in the affidavit as a major cocaine and marijuana trafficker and is purported to be the main supplier of drugs for the Washington area. Another, Alberto Garcia Calderon, 36, is described in the affidavit as the leader of the distribution route into Washington and the supplier of the drugs for Mr. Rodriguez.

Rodriguez, Calderon and seven others were indicted on charges of conspiracy to distribute and possess with the intent to distribute 500 grams or more of methamphetamine. If convicted, they face up to life in prison. Arrested in Winston-Salem, they have been ordered held without bond after court hearings in Georgia and North Carolina but will be brought to Washington for future proceedings.

Also arrested in Winston-Salem were Alejandro Quintana Cardenas, 25, and Moises Ramirez-Perez, 19. In Atlanta, authorities arrested Alfonso Martinez-Cruz, 39; Jesus Bustos-Penaloza, 52; Felipe Alvarado-Ponce, 36, and Sergio Garcia-Virelas, 24. The ninth defendant is referred to in the indictment only as Jorge, because his last name is unknown.

The case is being prosecuted in Washington by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Karla-Dee Clark, Vincent Caputy and Nihar Mohanty.

• Jerry Seper can be reached at jseper@washingtontimes.com.

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