Seven men arrested in connection with the seizure of 20 tons of cocaine at a Sylmar warehouse were part of an operation that funneled at least 60 tons of the drug into the country during the past two years, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner said Monday.
Reiner told a news conference that his estimate stemmed from a preliminary review of handwritten notes and ledgers confiscated at the Sylmar warehouse along with $12.2 million in cash.
"They are about as large as you can get outside of Colombia," Reiner said of the suspects. "We know that at a minimum, in the past two years 60 tons of cocaine has passed through this warehouse."
Reiner's allegations preceded a Los Angeles Municipal Court appearance by four of the suspects arrested Friday in Los Angeles and surrounding cities.
James Romero McTague, 41, of El Paso; Mauricio Monroy, 36, of Mexico City; Hugo Fernando Castillon, 32, of Sherman Oaks, and Miguel Gonzalez, 34, of Panorama City, who has also said his name is Miguel Chavez and Ronald Reagan, were denied bail. Their arraignment was scheduled for Friday.
Three other suspects were arrested Saturday night at Las Vegas' Flamingo Hilton hotel--Carlos Tapia Ponce, 68, allegedly a former Mexican customs officer; his son, Hector Tapia Anchondo, 34, and Carlos' brother, Hector Tapia, 66.
All appeared before a federal magistrate in Las Vegas on Monday, although officials said they did not have enough evidence to charge Carlos' brother, who was released.
Earlier Monday, Huntington Park police authorities took the extraordinary precaution of moving the four suspects out of a jail facility in that community to another undisclosed location, in part because of concerns for their safety.
"Their lives aren't worth a plugged nickel based on the doors they could open up (for investigators)," Huntington Park Police Sgt. Hal Butler said. "It really is the stuff movies are made of."
Butler said the move was prompted by "things . . . happening around the station that weren't kosher, such as suspicious people inquiring about the prisoners Sunday night."
Investigators said they have found additional evidence to show that the Los Angeles operation was linked to warehouses in El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
Huntington Park Police Detective D. J. Fitzgerald said phone numbers found during the raids Thursday night at the Sylmar warehouse and at a penthouse apartment in Sherman Oaks were traced to warehouses in El Paso and homes in Juarez. The information was provided to Drug Enforcement Administration agents in El Paso and Mexican authorities in Juarez and the locations were raided Friday night.
Fitzgerald said the seized records and documents show no indications that the drug network had any stop-off points on the transport route between El Paso and Los Angeles.
He said the documents have also provided leads in local spinoff investigations of the drug network, but he declined to be more specific.
"There is a lot of information," he said. "It is going to take a long time to go through it all."
In addition, DEA special agents discovered an underground storage facility being excavated in one of six warehouses raided in east El Paso.
"DEA agents who tore down a false wall found a concealed room about the size of a living room," said Ray Sepulveda, a DEA special agent in El Paso. "They had been digging a pit down about 20 feet. It would have been a good hiding place for narcotics."
At the news conference, Reiner said he planned to turn the Los Angeles cases over to federal authorities in the hope that the suspects, if convicted, would receive stiffer sentences under federal guidelines.
"Our reason for wanting this case prosecuted in federal court is a simple one," Reiner said. "The law in California provides for an absolute maximum sentence in this case of about 21 years. But under the federal system and sentencing guidelines, these individuals may well serve life in prison without the possibility of parole."
Reacting to the Sylmar seizure, Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) sought to compel the Bush Administration to decide within a month whether Los Angeles should qualify for emergency federal anti-drug assistance.
In letters to members of a House-Senate conference committee negotiating a $9.4-billion drug funding bill, Cranston argued that the "shocking enormity" of the 20-ton cocaine seizure in Los Angeles made clear that the nation "can no longer afford additional delay."