A Mexican drug trafficking ring that flooded the United States with cheap and highly pure heroin, causing an upsurge in overdoses, was broken up Thursday with the arrest of nearly 200 suspects, federal authorities said.
The ring, centered in Los Angeles for the last five years, sold 60% to 80% pure heroin to drug users in at least 22 cities across the country, according to law enforcement officials.
Until recently, the purity of Mexican black-tar heroin had been 30% to 40%.
The mass arrests culminated a yearlong investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI, sparked by a rash of deaths from the high-powered heroin in Chimayo, N.M.
"Not only did this group exhibit disregard for the law, but their peddling of this powerful and addictive drug showed an even greater disregard for human life." Atty. Gen. Janet Reno said in Washington.
In Los Angeles, U.S. Atty. Alejandro N. Mayorkas branded the ring's sales practices especially despicable.
"In what can only be termed as depraved," he said, a member of the ring peddled the heroin to addicts being treated at a methadone clinic in Columbus, Ohio. The drug dealer infiltrated the clinic with the help of an employee, according to a DEA affidavit.
The alleged U.S.-based ringleader, Oscar Hernandez, 35, and his wife, Marina Lopez, 39, both Mexican citizens, were arrested before dawn at their Panorama City home.
DEA officials estimated the ring's sales at more than $25 million a year.
Authorities said Hernandez's closely knit organization smuggled the heroin from the Mexican state of Nayarit, a center of poppy growing, to Los Angeles, where it was packaged and shipped to distributors throughout the country.
Michele Leonhart, head of the DEA field office in Los Angeles, said Hernandez was able to avoid detection for so long because his distributors were relatives or loyal family friends.
In addition to Los Angeles, she said, Hernandez's ring operated in San Diego; Bakersfield; Portland, Ore.; Honolulu; Maui; Anchorage; Las Vegas; Reno; Phoenix; Yuma, Ariz.; Albuquerque; Salt Lake City; Denver; Cleveland; Columbus and Steubenville, Ohio; Nashville; Atlanta; Chicago; Detroit; Pittsburgh; and Corpus Christi, Texas, as well as West Virginia, Minnesota, New Jersey and Kentucky.
The ring often used teenage girls traveling alone by bus and plane to deliver the drugs, authorities said. Sometimes the heroin was concealed in boomboxes that the teenagers carried with them.
At other times, officials said, the drugs were sent through FedEx and United Parcel Service.
Lopez was believed to be responsible for recruiting the couriers and arranging for their transportation.
Hernandez allegedly maintained a storage facility near his home in Panorama City where the drugs were packaged.
Donnie Marshall, DEA administrator, said: "This operation, I think, shows that heroin has reemerged in our society with a vengeance, and it is more potent and more deadly in our country than ever before."
Leonhart, a former undercover agent, said heroin is fast replacing cocaine as the drug of choice among many young people.
DEA officials said Hernandez's ring sold the potent heroin for $1,500 an ounce, compared with the average of $2,400 that Colombian traffickers are charging.
"The Mexicans were underselling the Colombians by $800 to $1,000 an ounce," said one official. "The purity rise by the Mexicans over the last few years is their way of competing with the high purity heroin the Colombians bring in. But the Mexicans also have brought the price down to compete with Colombians in areas east of the Mississippi River that they were not in before."
The ring allegedly grew its own opium in Nayarit and processed it there into black-tar heroin, which it smuggled in vehicles across the Arizona and California borders to Los Angeles.
Also arrested in the Los Angeles area were Jose Ricardo Lizarraga Nieblas, 38, of Downey; Ana Lilia Vera, 22, of Los Angeles; Susan Castellanos, 31, of El Monte; Rosa Elena Aguilar of Sylmar; and Agapito Reynaldo Lopez, 42, of Los Angeles.
A man only known as "Tavo" was arrested in Panorama City and another man known as "Lencho" was seized in North Hollywood.
All of those arrested were charged with conspiracy and drug trafficking. If convicted, they could be sentenced to life in prison.