Federal officials said Friday that they dismantled one of the most prolific drug rings in the Coachella Valley on Thursday in an operation that resulted in the arrests of 16 people, including one "shot caller" for the Mexican Mafia, and the seizure of 50 guns, methamphetamine and a pipe bomb.
A joint gang task force of state, local and federal officials tracked members of the network for 10 months by recording cellphone conversations and posing as drug buyers, officials said.
In those calls, some of the suspects allegedly revealed their involvement in the Mexican Mafia, a gang that operates throughout California and Mexico and is deeply entrenched in the state's prison system.
The most sought-after of the defendants was the alleged shot caller -- Jose Chavez Huerta, 42, who officials say continually identified himself in his cellphone conversations as the highest-ranking member of the Mexican Mafia in the Coachella Valley.
Federal officials said Huerta, who lives in Thermal, collected "taxes" from dealers who operated in his territory and provided a share of his profits to his Mexican Mafia sponsor, Richard Aguirre.
Aguirre is incarcerated at Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, where he is serving a life sentence for murder.
Huerta is charged with conspiracy to possess narcotics and possession with intent to distribute narcotics.
Since 1989, Huerta has served numerous prison sentences for smuggling drugs into prison and selling heroin and methamphetamine, , as well as robbery, assault and gun charges.
Along with Huerta's wife and brother, authorities arrested Aguirre's 75-year-old mother Thursday.
Authorities alleged that Aguirre's mother, Jovita Aguirre of Pico Rivera, collected "taxes" for Aguirre and relayed messages between her son and the gang members who answered to him.
Authorities are still searching for Huerta's associate, Tony Rodriguez, who was identified as the second-ranking member of the Mexican Mafia in the Coachella Valley, which stretches from east of the Banning area to the Imperial County line.
Officials allege that Rodriguez and Huerta enforced the Mexican Mafia's rule over the area by threats, assaults and murders -- including attacks in prison.
So far, 15 people have been charged with federal crimes. Four people arrested Thursday and Friday on drug charges will be charged in state courts.
J. Stephen Tidwell, assistant director in charge of the FBI in Los Angeles, said officials believed they had dealt a "pretty harsh blow" to the Coachella Valley operation.
He noted that among the 50 guns found during the raids, officials confiscated short-barreled rifles and illegal assault rifles with removable magazines.
Officials are still investigating how much methamphetamine Huerta's network handled per month, where it was coming from and who the group's primary clients were, Tidwell said.
Officials acknowledged that the Mexican Mafia still has a strong influence in the Coachella Valley, and said local officials would have to stay vigilant to prevent other gang members from taking over Huerta's clientele.