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Drug Task Force Arrests 4 Men in Ventura County

A suspected ring, based in Santa Paula, allegedly sold $150 million worth of marijuana across the United States each year since 1999.

October 25, 2003|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

Four Ventura County men suspected of operating a drug ring that had smuggled tens of millions of dollars' worth of marijuana throughout the United States since 1999 were arrested this week by an interagency task force as part of an ongoing three-year investigation, Sheriff Bob Brooks announced Friday.

The suspects have gang ties and are believed to be "the upper nucleus of the organization that smuggled these drugs nationwide," Brooks said during a news conference.

The ring sold an estimated $150 million worth of marijuana each year. The drugs were delivered to various upper-, middle- and street-level distributors, including gangs from Ventura and Los Angeles counties, Brooks said.

It is unusual for an extensive drug ring to be based in Ventura County, Brooks said, adding that the arrests point to the vigilance that law enforcement officers and the public must maintain against gangs.

"It raises the level of alert because of the scope of the organization," he said.

"Usually, the trail leads you to a more metropolitan area. It's a troubling trend to see something as lucrative and large scale as this being tied to gangs here," the sheriff said.

Arrested Wednesday were Felix Magana, 28, and Miguel Vega, 24, of Santa Paula; Ruben Estrada, 31, of Fillmore; and Peter Lozano, 28, of Oxnard.

A dozen others were arrested over the course of the investigation and more arrests are expected, Brooks said.

On Oct. 16, a federal grand jury returned indictments against the four on charges of distributing a controlled substance, conspiracy, importation of a controlled substance and attempted conspiracy.

Magana and Estrada also were charged with money laundering.

The defendants are being held at Terminal Island, near San Pedro, where they are awaiting arraignment.

Brooks said traffickers smuggled the marijuana from Mexico across the border to Santa Paula, where it was then distributed to other states.

The contraband was smuggled over the border in motor vehicles or shipped by "human pack trains," men wearing backpacks who crossed the border on foot to waiting cars, vans and trucks, Brooks said.

The four ringleaders ruled by intimidation, he said, instilling intense fear in the lower-level members of the organization and in neighbors.

Brooks said the ringleaders also openly challenged law enforcement officials during the investigation, but declined to elaborate.

Ventura County Sheriff's Sgt. Fred Bustillo, a member of the interagency task force that conducted the investigation, said that authorities learned of the drug smuggling ring through an arrest in Arizona in March 2000, which led them to the Santa Paula connection.

The task force was made up of representatives from the Ventura Police Department, Oxnard Police Department, the Ventura County Sheriff's Department, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and immigration and customs agents.

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