MERCED — Authorities on Wednesday in Merced announced what they called the biggest methamphetamine bust in Central Valley law enforcement history, displaying hundreds of pounds of confiscated crystal meth.
A joint undercover investigation by local and state agents that started in March yielded roughly 338 pounds of methamphetamine with an estimated value of about $9 million more than $100,000 in cash and the arrests of 11 suspects, officials said.
I am so proud of everyone who came together, Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin said at a news conference. What started off as just a normal course of a workday, ends up with traversing the entire state of California and going after these drug cartels.
Although most of the arrests and drug confiscations were made in Southern California, the case started months ago in Merced County after a local undercover sheriffs deputy bought a pound of methamphetamine from a suspect in the Livingston area.
After months of surveillance and intelligence gathering, local law enforcement agents reached out to the California Department of Justice to assist in what became a statewide investigation.
Ive been with the Department of Justice for 25 years now, and Ive never seen the magnitude of this seizure, said Ben Buford, special agent in charge of the state Attorney Generals Bureau of Investigation in Fresno. This impact is huge. Some of the arrestees are major cartel members.
Last week, the case climaxed when several investigators observed large quantities of meth being delivered to a house in Huntington Park in Los Angeles County.
Inside, agents said they found what is known as a conversion lab, where powder methamphetamine is turned into smokable crystal meth.
Agents said they busted two other conversion labs on subsequent raids in Rialto and Victorville in San Bernardino County, and seized additional drugs at a residence in Paramount, also in Los Angeles County.
According to Buford, while conversion labs are popping up around the state, not much meth is actually made in California anymore. He estimated that about 95 percent of the meth in the state is smuggled from Mexico.
Were getting large mega labs in Mexico now, he said.
According to state agents, more than half of the suspects in custody have been directly traced to a large crime syndicate in Mexico called the Milenio or Valencia cartel.
Merced hub eyed
The suspects arrested in the undercover operation were trying to start a distribution hub in Merced County that would have distributed meth to local street gangs, official said.
All 11 suspects will be prosecuted by the Merced County district attorneys office. Bail for the defendants has been set at as much as $4 million apiece, and charges include manufacturing, transporting and possession for sale of methamphetamine.
Theyre looking at upwards of 20 years in prison if theyre convicted of everything, said Chief Deputy District Attorney John Goold, who is leading spearheading the prosecution. There were a couple of peripheral players who will have lesser charges.
Most of the defendants are not U.S. citizens and if convicted and sentenced to prison will likely face deportation after serving their terms.
However, the outcome of the court case is far from clear. Many of the defendants have been in the country for less than three years, said Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II.
These guys should be going to prison for a long, long time, he said. Whether they do or not depends on if they have a history, whether or not they have a strike. A lot of them are new arrivals so they dont have much of a jacket yet.
Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209)385-2486 or email@example.com.