12/15/10 WTOP News - WASHINGTON - Authorities blocked a notorious Mexican drug cartel from gaining a foothold in the nation's capital with a series of arrests and indictments in a massive trafficking scheme, police said Wednesday.
Eight illegal immigrants were arrested over the weekend in Georgia and North Carolina, and on Tuesday a federal grand jury in the District indicted all eight plus a ninth man who remains at large.
Authorities said they seized about 80 pounds of crystal meth with a street value of more than $3.5 million, by far the largest meth seizure in Washington's history. The previous record was about two pounds.
"Usually we see (crystal meth) the size of pebbles," said John Torres, special agent in charge of the Washington office of U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "In this case we're talking icicles."
D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier says they also seized 10 gallons of liquid meth, more than 1,000 grams of cocaine, 11 pounds of marijuana, three guns and more than $35,000 in cash.
Those arrested have links to the "La Familia" drug cartel in the Mexican state of Michoacan, police said. Authorities were eager to keep the cartel from gaining a foothold in Washington because of its reputation for brutality.
"They have no qualms about using violence _ murder, kidnapping," Torres said.
Cartel members are especially dangerous to the U.S. because they refuse as a matter of honor to sell drugs to fellow Mexicans, Torres said. So they're always on the lookout for export markets.
"It's almost cult-like down in Michoacan _ they don't want to turn their own Mexican citizens into drug addicts. But they have no qualms about selling it here," Torres said.
The Washington region in particular was an attractive market because, historically, the city has not been exposed to high levels of crystal meth abuse. That could change quickly, Lanier said, if it became readily available because of the drug's highly addictive nature.
As eager as Lanier is to keep crystal meth and the cartel out of the city, she admitted during a news conference Wednesday that she considered pulling the plug midway through the three-week undercover investigation because of the unusually high risk of violence from the cartel.
In the end, all the arrests were made safely.
The trafficking scheme's accused ringleaders _ Esteban Almontes Rodriguez, 25, most recently of Temple Hills, Md., and Alberto Garcia Calderon, 36, were arrested Friday in Winston-Salem, N.C. Also arrested in that city were Alejandro Quintana Cardenas, 25, and Moises Ramirez-Perez, believed to be 19. In Atlanta, authorities arrested Alfonso Martinez-Cruz, 39; Jesus Bustos-Penaloza, 52; Felipe Alvarado-Ponce, 36, and Sergio Garcia-Virelas, 24. A ninth defendant known only as "Jorge" remains at large.
Attorneys for Ramirez-Perez and Cardenas declined comment on the substance of the charges. The suspects arrested in Atlanta did not have attorneys listed in court records. Rodriguez has asked for a court-appointed lawyer, and Calderon did not yet have an attorney.
La Familia has been the most flamboyant of Mexico's drug cartels, combining violence with religious messages and professions of love for their state. The gang claims it is trying to protect Michoacan from other cartels.
Earlier this month, federal police shot and killed the group's leader, Nazario Moreno, 40, a quirky figure who urged cartel members to follow a code of morality even as they were decapitating rivals and terrorizing civilians in Michoacan.