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130 Charged in Alleged Links to Mexican Drug Cartel

November 08, 2002|Greg Krikorian | Times Staff Writer

Federal authorities have indicted more than 130 people linked to a Mexican drug cartel that allegedly supplied hundreds of pounds of cocaine each year to California, Alaska and other locations around the nation, officials said Thursday.

The charges stem from a nearly two-year-long investigation that involved grand jury indictments in three cities and scores of law enforcement officers coordinating their efforts.

In Alaska, 44 defendants were charged. Officials there described the effort as the largest drug trafficking case in state history. Twenty-five of those suspects were arrested Thursday in Anchorage and New York, according to U.S. Atty. Timothy Burgess in Alaska.

Charges against 16 people were filed in Los Angeles, but authorities said those defendants were some of the most significant players in the drug cartel. Agents from the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration seized about 200 kilograms -- more than 400 pounds -- of cocaine in L.A., about two-thirds of the amount taken nationwide and worth more than $3 million. Also seized, authorities said, was $500,000 in cash, also about a third of the amount taken nationwide.

Michele Leonhart, special agent in charge of the DEA office in Los Angeles, said the investigation revealed "the significant role Los Angeles plays in international, national and local cocaine trafficking."

"It's exceptionally rare when you find a case where you can track drugs being imported from Mexico to wholesalers in Los Angeles, then to middle men and finally to street dealers throughout the country," said Steven Novak, a supervisory special agent for the FBI.

The multi-state investigation began as several smaller probes that converged. In Los Angeles, for example, three separate investigations involving federal, state and local authorities were merged with the Anchorage case, dubbed "Operation Arctic Heat." Similarly, in Kansas City, Mo., where 38 people were charged, agents had begun their own investigation after determining that suspects there received cocaine from people already under investigation in L.A.

The majority of arrests began in mid-October, authorities said, when agents learned that one of their primary suspects was leaving L.A. for Mexico.

Elba Portillo was arrested at her house in Hacienda Heights on Oct. 14, according to the FBI, and has been charged with helping to arrange the transport of 14 kilograms of cocaine from Mexico. The van with that shipment was stopped June 20 at the border in El Paso, authorities said.

Investigators then moved to round up associates who might flee. The first to be arrested, according to the FBI, were Yolanda Velazquez, her son Michael Arce and her nephew Freddy Velazquez. The three were taken into custody Oct. 30 when investigators learned they were prepared to flee to Arizona or Mexico, the FBI said. At Yolanda Velazquez's home in Downey, authorities say, sheriff's deputies found a kilogram of cocaine and a handgun.

Another kilogram of cocaine, authorities say, was found in her nephew's car.

Also named in the Los Angeles complaint and now considered a fugitive is Francisco "Pancho" Aviles, alleged to be a drug lord in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

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