Almost 900 pounds of cocaine was seized late Friday in Chula Vista with the arrest three people, including a nurse and her 62-year-old mother, who was once convicted for co-piloting a load of Mexican marijuana into Arizona, federal drug authorities announced.
It is the largest amount ever taken in a San Diego County surveillance operation, officials said.
"Obviously, this comes from a major organization," said Charles E. Hill, special agent in charge of the federal Drug Enforcement Adminstration in San Diego.
He stood Saturday afternoon in the back room of the agency's National City office, surrounded by eight large suitcases and four hefty duffel bags, all full of cocaine. The cocaine was neatly wrapped in piles of large yellow packages marked "calvo," which agents thought might be Spanish slang for cave.
"Any group that can put this quantity together and take the chance of moving this large of an amount across the border and into this area and then risk delivering it to sources in Southern California is obviously a major organization," Hill said.
Delivered to Parking Lot
He said undercover federal drug agents had monitored the trio for two days before the arrests about 11:15 p.m. Friday, when most of the cache was delivered to a parking lot at a Chula Vista motel near Interstate 5 and E Street.
When agents began opening the trunks of three cars used by the suspects, they were surprised to find so many cocaine-laden suitcases hidden inside.
The agents then went to Imperial Beach, where the duffel bags were recovered from a car parked along a residential street.
A total of four vehicles and 403 kilograms of cocaine, or about 886 pounds, was seized in the arrests. Authorities estimated the wholesale value of the cocaine at more than $8 million. But they said the white powder carried a street value of up to $52 million.
"Somebody, whoever paid for all this, is hurting today," Hill said.
While there have been larger drug seizures from uniform arrests along the border, authorities said that Friday night's arrest was by far the biggest cocaine amount ever netted in a DEA undercover surveillance operation in San Diego County. The previous record pales by comparison.
Ron D'Ulisse, a DEA spokesman, said the earlier record surveillance bust for cocaine was a 40 pounds. That score was made several years ago when undercover agents used an airplane and staged a phony buy of cocaine at Lindbergh Field, he said.
He said that surveillance operations often result in charges of drug transactions but that large amounts of drugs are not seized because the suspects do not happen to be carrying large quantities of drugs when they are arrested.
"We were really surprised when we started opening the trunks of cars last night in Chula Vista," he said.
He was also surprised to learn that he had earlier met one of the three suspects, 62-year-old Stella Marie Young of Tucson. "I thought to myself, 'Wait a minute. I know her.' " he said.
D'Ulisse first met Young in 1974 at an airstrip in Casa Grande, Ariz. He said he arrested her there as she sat in the co-pilot's seat of a plane that had just landed with a load of marijuana from Mexico. She was convicted in 1975 of conspiracy to possess marijuana with the intent to distribute the drug.
On Saturday, Young; her daughter, Donna Marie Rogers, 36, an out-of-work nurse in Tucson; and Roberto Sanchez, 30, an Escondido construction worker, were being held in the Metropolitan Correctional Center on suspicion of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute the drug.
Authorities said Young faces a minimum sentence of 20 years in prison because of her prior conviction and the other suspects face 10 years in prison.
While declining to release specifics of the case, Hill said the DEA learned last week that Young was in San Diego. "It raised a red flag," he said. "She was well known to us."
He said the cocaine appeared to have come from South America and was moved through Mexico before passing through the U.S. border. Hill described Sanchez "as the go-between for the Mexican source and the two women."
Officials said their investigation is continuing and more arrests are possible.