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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

40 Tons of Marijuana Seized

10 Members of Tijuana Cartel Captured, Officials Say

October 20, 2000|TINA DIRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VENTURA — Capping one of the largest drug investigations for Ventura County authorities in recent memory, local, state and federal agents said they seized more than 40 tons of marijuana and other drugs, and arrested 10 Tijuana cartel members operating out of Ventura, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties.

Authorities spilled large bundles of marijuana and 50 rifles and handguns over a conference table during a media conference at the Ventura County Sheriff's Department on Thursday. All of it, they said, had been seized in an investigation that detectives have worked on for a year.

"This is a case that started with a seedling in Ventura County and just progressed into bigger players outside the county," said David Marzullo, resident agent in charge of the U. S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Ventura office. "But the local investigators continued to pursue it for the good of the entire L. A. Basin."

The bust, Ventura County Sheriff Bob Brooks and others said, captured high-ranking members of a Tijuana marijuana cartel that grows and sells drugs in Southern California and also ships them to the Midwest.

"We know we have hurt this organization at its core," Brooks said.

Authorities also seized eight kilos of cocaine, 28 pounds of methamphetamine and $85,000 in cash. All told, the drugs had an estimated value of $200 million, if sold on the street in smaller portions to individual consumers.

An anonymous tip to an agent at the Ventura DEA office started the investigation last year, Marzullo said. The caller named a major cocaine trafficker he alleged was operating out of the San Fernando Valley.

DEA agents began watching the man, whose activities led them to dealers in Oxnard. Federal agents then learned that the Ventura County Combined Agency Task Force was investigating the Oxnard connection, and the two agencies joined forces.

For the next several months, agents followed suspects traveling among homes in Sylmar, Northridge, Oxnard and Fontana. While working in San Bernardino County, Marzullo said, he learned that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and state Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement were investigating several of the same people, many of whom were considered heavyweights in a Tijuana drug cartel. The agencies combined again and began working out of the Ventura DEA office.

Originally, authorities thought that the group was an organized cocaine ring, Marzullo said. But further investigation revealed that the group's major drug was marijuana grown in Angeles, Cleveland, Los Padres and San Bernardino national forests.

The U. S. Forest Service helped retrieve about 40 tons of marijuana plants from forest lands, including about two tons from Los Padres National Forest.

In the past year, Mike Ault with the Forest Service said, the number of marijuana plants seized out of forest lands has increased dramatically--from 22,000 in 1999 to 100,000 plants so far this year. That includes the plants seized in the course of the latest arrests.

Authorities estimate that each marijuana plant produces one pound of pot, although other sources have said the amount per plant is much less.

Because of tightened police controls at the border, Ault said, cartels have found it easier to grow drugs in remote forest lands, then ship them by car throughout the country.

"This is the largest marijuana growth I've ever seen as an agent in the L. A. area," said Marzullo, a 14-year DEA veteran in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

Investigators made their first round of arrests Sept. 28, picking up Rogelio Robledo, 48, of Sylmar; Jose Raul Rodriguez, 37, of Van Nuys, and Eduardo Gutierrez, 44, of Fontana.

On Wednesday, authorities arrested Pedro Sanchez, 48, of Lake View Terrace; Camilos Gutierrez, 33, of Michigan; Benningo Gordillo, 35, of Northridge; Felipe Hernandez, 38, of Oxnard; Oscar Castillo, 29, of Oxnard; Miguel Rangel, 46, of Palmdale, and Ponciano Beccera, 33, of Lebec.

This is the most complicated and longest investigation in the two-year history of the Ventura County Combined Agency Task Force, which is made up of the Oxnard, Ventura and Simi Valley police departments, the Sheriff's Department, DEA, FBI, Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, and Ventura County probation and district attorney's offices.

Brooks called the investigation the most significant in Ventura County since last year's arrest of nine Hells Angels members on suspicion of distributing Valium and methamphetamine to middle and high school campuses. During a series of raids in 1999, sheriff's investigators seized $27,000 in cash and drugs valued at $364,000.

Ventura County authorities have already dubbed this the most bountiful pot eradication season in years. In a five-week period that ended in early October, state and local investigators seized 16,000 additional plants in Los Padres National Forest north of Ojai.

Investigators rarely make arrests connected to marijuana plant seizures, Brooks said. Most plants are grown in remote areas of the forest, and the growers are usually gone when the plants are discovered. With little to trace the plants to their growers, the growers are rarely detected.

In the bust announced Thursday, however, authorities said when they arrested several suspects, they also found receipts in their homes for pieces of irrigation equipment seized at several of the pot farms.

"That almost never happens," Marzullo said.

Authorities said the investigation is ongoing and that more arrests could follow.

Brooks added that many of those arrested have drug histories.

"Many people say we are wasting resources going after marijuana growers," Brooks said. "But this is organized crime at its height. These are people dangerous to our community. They have multimillion-dollar groves to protect. If a hiker or fisherman walked across these growers, he might not walk out."

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