- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 30, 2021

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Dozens of people are facing federal charges in a violent, years-long drug ring that an inmate orchestrated from inside a Tennessee state prison using smuggled cellphones, a federal prosecutor announced Tuesday.

According to a news release from acting U.S. Attorney Mary Jane Stewart in Nashville, a federal indictment unsealed Friday charged 27 people with a host of charges related to a large-scale conspiracy to distribute heroin, methamphetamine, fentanyl and cocaine that has been occurring since as early as 2018. Eight others were charged in separate indictments last week and two others had been previously charged.

The prosecutor said 29-year-old inmate Humberto Morales of Columbia, Tennessee, orchestrated the conspiracy alleged in the investigation, which also resulted in charges of kidnapping, money laundering, threats by electronic communication, and firearms violations. A federal complaint filed in July 2020 alleges Morales was running a “large-scale drug trafficking conspiracy” from a prison in Wayne County, Tennessee.

Morales is now housed at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution on 2014 aggravated robbery and burglary offenses, according to state records.

The Tennessee Department of Correction, which sought out help from federal authorities over concerns about criminal activity behind bars, said the charges further illustrate the need for federal officials to act on legislation to let state prison officials jam the signals of cellphones smuggled to inmates within their walls.

Tennessee corrections officials were awarded a grant through the Bureau of Justice Assistance for a pilot program using shielded micro-jamming to block the cellphone signals, but the Communications Act of 1934 prevents using the technology, according to the state Department of Correction.

“In the fight against contraband cell phones, we run into a brick wall, time and time again,” Tennessee Department of Correction Commissioner Tony Parker said in a statement. “Our hands are tied with a near century old law that could not have foreseen the problem of illegal cell phones inside prisons in 2021.”

The U.S. attorney said the organization had ties to MS-13, Sur-13 and other street gangs and distributed tens of thousands of fentanyl-laced pills; multiple kilograms of fentanyl and heroin; more than 50 pounds of methamphetamine; and smaller quantities of cocaine and marijuana.

Morales, the prosecutor said, used the contraband phones through encrypted communication services to orchestrate drug distribution, order acts of violence, and direct cash from drug sales between middle Tennessee and Mexico.

In one November 2019 instance, a woman was kidnapped, driven around Nashville and then a hatchet was used to chop off one of her hands as punishment for losing drug proceeds, the U.S. attorney said.

Additionally, a hitman for the group cut off part of his own pinky finger at Morales’ direction to prove his continued loyalty to the organization after he lost or stole a small amount of drugs, the prosecutor said.

Two of the defendants are fugitives believed to be in Mexico, according to the prosecutor’s office.

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