Drug investigators said Tuesday that they have broken up an international narcotics ring operating in California and Arizona, arresting 20 suspected smugglers and seizing nearly 3 1/2 tons of cocaine and $3.5 million in cash.
The arrests and confiscations, carried out over a six-week period after a one-year investigation, involved dozens of agents working for 14 federal, state and local agencies.
U. S. Customs Service Special Agent John Luksic said the arrests were made possible through the cooperation of the law enforcement agencies, whose members formed a small army of investigators.
"Some years ago, all we could do was react to what the smugglers were doing on an agency-by-agency basis," Luksic said. "Now when they attempt something like this, we're there, we're organized and we're waiting for them."
At a news conference announcing the results of Operation Inferno/Backdraft, Luksic explained how agents traced the cartel's distribution web from Colombia through Mexico and into Arizona and, finally, to Southern California. The cocaine was concealed inside shipments of Mexican floor tile transported on flat-bed trucks.
The shipments were taken to sites scattered throughout Southern California, including Rancho Cucamonga, Colton, El Monte, Diamond Bar, Apple Valley, Acton, Bell Gardens and Hawthorne.
More than a dozen raids took place in California and Arizona beginning July 3 and culminating Aug. 21, Luksic said.
In addition to the cash and cocaine, agents also confiscated more than 24 pounds of marijuana, 15 guns and rifles and 23 cars, trucks and vans.
During the investigation, agents found links between the smuggling ring and a distribution operation allegedly controlled by Jorge Roca-Suarez, described as one of the world's largest cocaine traffickers.
Roca-Suarez, who was arrested in December, 1990, at his San Marino mansion, awaits trial on federal drug trafficking charges.
Among those arrested in recent weeks are several men believed to have taken control of the operation after Roca-Suarez's arrest, Luksic said. Alleged key leaders were identified as Angel Leoncio Alarcon, 46, of Chino and Gabriel Carrera Aguilera, 44, of Pico Rivera.
Also facing federal charges in the case are Jorge Jose Garza Jr., 27, of San Antonio; Jose Jaime Galeano Rua, 46, of Corona; Juventino Rene Diza Cano, 41, of Diamond Bar; Antonio Garcia Montenegro, 44, of Santa Ana; Juan Carrillo Ramirez, 46, of Los Angeles; Arturo Flores Pacheco, 27, of Tijuana; Ceveraino Flores-Chavez, 47, of North Hollywood; Reynaldo Fernandez-Palenzuela, 29, of Bell; Guillermo Chavez, 32, of Pomona; and Carlos Duque, 51, of Tucson.
All face as much as life in federal prison without possibility of parole.
Two other federal suspects--Apolinar Gonzalez Diaz, 43, of Sylmar and Rolando Heron Alarcon, 48, of Santa Ana--remain at large, officials said.
Eight other people taken into custody will face state charges, rather than federal prosecution, because they played lesser roles in the ring, authorities said.