A yearlong investigation involving wiretaps, confidential informants and purchases of automatic weapons and drugs ended Wednesday with dozens of simultaneous raids in Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin counties, according to state and federal authorities.
The large-scale drug-trafficking operation is believed to have ties to the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico, officials said. The raids conducted in the Valley early Wednesday resulted in 11 arrests and the seizure of methamphetamine, marijuana and firearms.
According to a search warrant affidavit unsealed Wednesday in U.S. District Court, the investigation centered around adjoining horse-ranch properties on Almond Avenue in Patterson owned by 62-year-old Augustin Ramirez, who was among those arrested Wednesday.
“Evidence uncovered during the investigation indicates the ring used sophisticated methods to conceal and smuggle the contraband, including commercial trucks with hollowed-out drive shafts and vehicles equipped with hidden compartments,” Lauren Horwood, a U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman said in a news release.
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Authorities seized about 90 pounds of suspected methamphetamine, nearly 60 pounds of street-ready marijuana, at least three firearms and more than $20,000 in cash, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE is an investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The investigation was led by the California Department of Justice’s Mountain and Valley Marijuana Investigation Team and was coordinated with dozens of agencies in the Central Valley, according to Virginia Kice, an ICE spokeswoman.
At least six of the 11 people arrested Wednesday face federal trafficking-related charges, the Justice Department said, including suspected ringleader Francisco “Paco” Felix.
Felix, 40, who lives primarily in Mountain House in San Joaquin County, also is a suspect in an unsolved double homicide in 2010 in Modesto, according to a search warrant affidavit. Felix is believed to have a “secondary residence” on Elm Avenue in Patterson, according to the affidavit.
Additional federal arrests included Alejandro “El Gallo” Martinez; Miguel “Mili” Felix of Ceres; Sergio Modesto; Antonio Ramirez of Turlock; Gerardo Barraza, 19; Martin Rubio, 49, of Stockton; Rafael Alcauter, 49; and Martin Lopez, according to Horwood. Ages and places of residence weren’t available for all those arrested.
At least four other suspects still are being sought, Horwood said.
Investigators began purchasing methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana from suspects, including purchases allegedly involving Francisco Felix and Martinez in early April at the adjoining horse ranches in Patterson. The investigation was launched in January 2013, the affidavit says.
Court documents outline a long series of purchases of methamphetamine, marijuana and, later, illegal weapons by informants working with authorities over many months.
On Sept. 19, Francisco Felix reportedly told a person working with investigators he could get at least 200 pounds of crystal methamphetamine that had been cooked and was stored in Culiacan, Mexico. Felix reportedly praised the shipment as having “never been stepped on,” meaning it was pure, according to the affidavit.
On Sept. 24, an informant met in Stockton with an unnamed “gun broker” from Manteca to purchase firearms. The seller told the informant he could get “AK-47s” and “Uzis” without any trouble from gang members in Stockton and Manteca.
A U.S. District Court judge in October approved wiretaps on cellphones belonging to Francisco Felix and Martinez, the affidavit says.
Authorities searched six locations in Patterson, three in Ceres, two in Newman and Tracy, and one each in Modesto, Stockton, Stevinson, Turlock and Mountain House, according to an affidavit.
A suspected marijuana grow house at 2104 Manhattan Way in Modesto also was searched Wednesday, the affidavit says.
During the raids, authorities uncovered at least five marijuana cultivation operations, including one with more than 2,100 plants, according to Michelle Gregory, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Justice.
About 25 deputies and officers from Merced County participated in several early-morning raids, including the Merced County Sheriff’s Department’s air and narcotics units, the community gang task force and the Merced Anti-Gang Task Force, Sgt. Rich Howard confirmed.
Authorities in Stanislaus and Merced counties referred operational questions regarding the raids to federal and state agencies.
Officials said homes also were raided on Evergreen Court in Livingston, Oak Street in Delhi and the 18000 block of Sixth Avenue in Stevinson. A home on Ronnie Court and another in the 500 block of M Street in Merced also were searched Wednesday, officials confirmed.
It was not clear Wednesday if any arrests were made in Merced County.