Almost 1 3/4 tons of cocaine were seized from two vans Wednesday, one in National City, the other in Imperial Beach, in what agents for the Drug Enforcement Administration called the largest domestic seizure of the drug in San Diego County.
Julius C. Beretta, the agent who headed the investigation, said the seizure was second in quantity only to the 8,000 pounds of cocaine seized from a butane tanker truck at the Otay Mesa port of entry last October.
Beretta said the seizure was the culmination of a 24-hour-a-day surveillance that began last Thursday, when the two vans crossed into the United States from Mexico, one entering at Otay Mesa, the other at San Ysidro.
He said one of the vans was seized at 5:35 a.m. Wednesday on a residential street in the Lincoln Acres area of National City. The other was seized at 2:45 p.m. at a storage facility in Imperial Beach, where it was parked.
Beretta said the collective amount confiscated was 3,456 pounds of cocaine and about 240 pounds of marijuana. DEA spokesman Ronald J. D'Ulisse said the street value of the cocaine is thought to be between $70 million and $80 million, with the marijuana valued at $120,000.
Arrested were insulation installer Luis Olmos, 34, who lives in the 2700 block of Chaffee Street in National City, and unemployed truck driver Rigoberto Rodriguez, 39, and gardener Jose Ricardo Mesa-Arce, 30, who are from Tijuana, Beretta said.
He said the three would be charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine in excess of 5 kilograms and possession with intent to distribute cocaine in excess of 5 kilograms.
He said the suspects face a maximum possible sentence of 10 years to life with no possibility of parole and a $4 million fine. The three are being held at the Metropolitan Correction Center and face an arraignment hearing today before Federal Magistrate Barry Ted Moskowitz.
Beretta said the citizenship of the three had not been determined, although they are believed to be Mexicans. He said the vans contained no weapons and that none of the suspects offered resistance.
DEA agents displayed the drugs, wrapped in green and blue plastic bags and packed in cardboard boxes, at a press conference at agency headquarters in National City. As TV minicams photographed the drugs, agents laughed about their lack of sleep for a week. Beretta said that, judging from the Sibali's Quality label--possibly a code for country of origin--stamped on top of most of the parcels, the cocaine was probably grown in Peru or Bolivia, processed in Colombia, smuggled into Mexico and then driven into the United States.
He said the drugs were probably en route to Los Angeles, with Tijuana, San Diego and Los Angeles the key distribution points along the way, in the "smuggling trail" leading from South America to Southern California.
Given the size of the seizure, Beretta was asked how much illegal contraband is getting through the border and eluding the grasp of federal agents.
He sighed and said: "Well, that's the age-old question. If we knew how much was getting through, I guess we'd be stopping more of it. I don't know. I can't make an estimate of it."
DEA agents recently held a press conference at which they said the level of drug trafficking was thought to be lower than it had been in the past. Beretta was asked if Wednesday's seizure betrayed that assessment.
"I don't know . . . . I don't want to give an estimate on that," he said. "I don't know how much is coming across the border. I do know we've seen quite a bit of cocaine since the truck (seizure last October at Otay Mesa), but there's no way to determine how much is coming through."
Beretta declined to say how federal agents knew the vans were carrying drugs. He said the DEA knew the vans had crossed the border by doing a computer check of license-plate numbers of all vehicles that entered the United States through San Diego County last week.
Beretta said he "could not yet assess" the "degree of importance" of Wednesday's seizure to that of others around the country. But it was much lower in quantity to the 21 tons of cocaine seized in Sylmar, Calif., in Los Angeles County in 1989 and 9 tons seized recently in Brownsville, Tex.