The seizure of more than 53 pounds of heroin during a traffic stop in Aberdeen last month played a key role in a federal Drug Enforcement Administration investigation that led to the federal indictment of 12 men, all believed to be Mexican citizens, and “dismantled” a high-level drug trafficking organization operating all over the state, drug enforcement officials say.
The seizure was by far the largest ever in Grays Harbor County, said Sheriff Rick Scott, easily twice as big as any other seizure of hard drugs. He estimated the street value of the heroin at $1.5 million. “Sadly, this just really illustrates how bad the heroin problem is getting,” he said.
Four men were arrested by local officials, Scott said, but two of them — Jose Manuel Pardo-Martinez, 32, and Esgardo Daniel Martinez-Pizano, 18 — are among the 12 indicted by a federal grand jury. Scott characterized them as “upper middle management” in the scheme of things, typically supplying street-level dealers who sell to end users. They appeared in federal court in Seattle on Thursday.
Members of the Grays Harbor Drug Task Force, Aberdeen Police and Grays Harbor Sheriff’s Office assisted DEA in the simultaneous execution of two search warrants in Aberdeen on Thursday.
In a news release, federal officials said the investigation began in 2011 and was led by the Drug Enforcement Administration with investigative contributions from Immigration & Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security Investigations, the Grays Harbor Drug Task Force, South Snohomish County Narcotics Task Force, King County Sheriff’s Office, Seattle Police Department, Port of Seattle, Tri-Cities Metro Drug Task Force and the Washington State Patrol.
The probe ranged from Everett to Vancouver, Wash., and from Aberdeen to the Tri-Cities. Over the course of the investigation law enforcement have seized more than 56 pounds of heroin and more than eight pounds of highly pure methamphetamine, officials said.
According to records filed in the case, court-authorized wire taps were used to intercept hundreds, if not thousands, of drug trafficking-related phone calls and text messages between September 2012 and now. Investigators allege that drugs were being smuggled from Mexico across the border into Texas and California, and then north to Western Washington.
Sheriff Scott said the drugs sometimes came directly here from Mexico and other times may have passed through dealers along the way. “By preventing that amount of dope from hitting the street, we affected the ability of street level users to acquire heroin,” Scott said. “We usually monitor the price (after a large bust) to know if demand increases prices and we know that the price did go up a little bit.”
The length of the investigation was worth it, Scott said. “The goal on these cases is to take as long as necessary to identify as many cells of operation as we can so we don’t just disrupt an organization, but dismantle it. I think we were pretty successful in this case.”
Describing the seizure of the 53 pounds of heroin in Aberdeen in mid-February, Scott said, “We got intel that there was a significant shipment coming in so we set up with DEA and local resources and were able to intercept it.”
Actually involved in the stop were the Grays Harbor Drug Task Force, assisted by the Aberdeen Police Department, Hoquiam Police Department and the Grays Harbor County Sheriff’s Office.
During a search of the vehicle, investigators located an access panel in the rear cargo area of the vehicle that allowed access to the gas tank and found the heroin inside. Each package of heroin was covered in mustard and red pepper, which is one method used by drug traffickers to mask the smell of the heroin from drug detection dogs, officials said.
In the other major seizure earlier this year, law enforcement found two kilograms of suspected crystal methamphetamine that was hidden in paint cans in the back of a truck stopped on Interstate 84 in Oregon.
“Drug trafficking organizations have one priority: financial wealth through addiction,” said DEA Special Agent in Charge Matthew G. Barnes. “Seizures of heroin are on the rise in the Pacific Northwest. This investigation alone prevented 4 million user doses of heroin from hitting our streets, ruining lives and giving drug dealers over $1 million dollars in profits. The DEA and our law enforcement partners will continue to have an unwavering focus on keeping our communities safe.”
In addition to the two Aberdeen men, the grand jury indicted the following people:
Antonio Zuniga-Barajas, 29 of Kennewick; Javier Zuniga-Ochoa, 50, Kennewick; Hector M. Hernandez-Hernandez, 36, of Vancouver; Enrique Orozco-Rojas, 37, Kennewick; Pedro Barragan-Valdovinos, 39, of Pasco; Braulio Zuniga-Cervantes, 30, of Kent; Victor Carmona-Tapia, 28, of Everett; Omar Valencia-Barajas, 24, of Everett; Jose Trinidad Cuevas-Mendoza, 32, of Monroe; Alberto Bernal-Rodriguez, 43, of Vancouver; and Omar Huerta-Garcia, 29, of Pasco.
On Thursday, 14 different locations and multiple vehicles were searched statewide. Law enforcement seized two pounds of crystal methamphetamine, heroin, two weapons, six vehicles and more than $20,000 in cash.
If convicted, the defendants face a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison because of the quantity of drugs involved.