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O.C. heroin bust leads to 23 arrests

December 14, 2007|Jennifer Delson | Times Staff Writer

Twenty-three people were arrested this week in connection with a smuggling operation that brought heroin from Mexico into Orange County for distribution throughout California, officials said.

Beginning at 6 a.m. Wednesday, investigators seized about 3.3 pounds of heroin, $25,000 in cash, a shotgun and several other weapons during searches of nine Santa Ana homes, a residence in Garden Grove and Rollin Auto Collision in Santa Ana. Among those arrested was Francisco Javier Valencia-Contreras, 29, owner of the auto shop and suspected ringleader of the organization.

All but three of those arrested are from Santa Ana. They range in age from 17 to 55, and most are seasoned drug distributors, officials said. The group included several families.

Valencia and the others were charged with conspiracy to possess heroin for distribution and sale. Four were taken into federal custody on immigration violations.

The arrests are among numerous heroin-related enforcement actions this year in Orange County.

"People have the mistaken impression that heroin is no longer a popular drug. We have had several significant seizures of heroin in Orange County this year," said Virginia Kice, spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which worked with Santa Ana police on a 10-month investigation that led to the arrests.

Orange County has long been an attractive hub for smugglers, said Joseph Macias, ICE assistant special agent in charge of investigations.

Whether more drugs are entering the county isn't known, he said. "All I can say is we are getting more involved," he said.

The drugs seized this week were brown heroin, a less pure variety than black tar heroin, which constitutes 80% of the heroin produced in Mexico.

The investigation began this year when Santa Ana police seized about 6 pounds of heroin at a local house and more than $20,000 that authorities said implicated Valencia in a distribution scheme.

Detectives determined that Valencia received heroin from the same organization that ICE identified in a February bust in Anaheim that resulted in the seizure of nearly 113 pounds of heroin.

Valencia's business, at 1st and Lacy streets, has been the target of several prior drug trafficking investigations, most notably in 2004 when police in North Carolina seized cocaine found in hidden compartments in vehicles registered to Rollin Auto.

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