Drug Operation: Cartel bust detailed

Details about a major Central Valley law enforcement operation targeting La Familia Michoacana were unveiled Monday during a news conference at the Merced County district attorney's office.

Meanwhile, Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II said potential state cuts could affect the ability of local agents to conduct similar operations in the future.

La Familia is a violent Mexican drug cartel that has been linked to a rash of kidnappings, beheadings and drug crimes in Mexico in recent years. Last month, an investigation conducted by state and local task force agents into the cartel's Central Valley activities was concluded after series of raids in Merced, Madera, Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties.

As a result, 24 cartel members and associates were arrested. The goal was "to keep one of Mexico's most violent drug cartels from gaining a foothold in the Central Valley," Morse said.

Other law enforcement officials present at the conference included Madera County District Attorney Michael R. Keitz and Merced Police Chief Norm Andrade, as well as several special agents.

In addition, 10 pounds of crystal methamphetamine, 14 pounds of methamphetamine in powdered form, 30 gallons of methamphetamine solution, 17 firearms including assault weapons, a meth conversion lab, two meth superlabs, four vehicles with sophisticated hidden compartments and about $111,000 were seized in raids conducted in recent weeks by agents from the state Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, working with agents from the Merced and Madera narcotics and gang task forces and the Merced-Mariposa High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force.

Two of the seized vehicles, along with meth, firearms and money, were on display during the conference. Twenty-seven search warrants were served in Fresno and Madera counties. The investigation began in August and targeted three groups operating independently in the Valley. All received the direction and resources to manufacture meth from cartel leaders in Mexico, Morse said.

The chemical to manufacture the meth, Morse said, was purchased in Nevada and Arizona and transported to Merced County for final processing and distribution.

The suspects are facing narcotics-related charges, such as manufacturing and distribution of meth. Ten suspects are from Madera County, and 14 from Merced and Stanislaus counties, officials said.

Andrade, who's also the chairman of the Merced Multi-Agency Narcotics Task Force, said law enforcement has watched with great concern the increasing drug- trafficking violence in Mexico.

"We have been greatly troubled by the prospect of transnational cartels, like La Familia Michoacana, establishing operations in the Central Valley," he said.

The partnership between local task forces and the Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement enables law enforcement to bring state-of-the-art resources to the battle against drug and gang cartels operating in the state, he said.

Earlier this year, in another operation between the Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement and local task forces, law enforcement arrested more than 90 gang members connected to the Nuestra Familia, a prison gang involved in Central Valley drug sales and transportation, Andrade said.

From the contraband in the most recent operation, it's clear law enforcement is fighting well-financed and organized criminals, Andrade said.

"The successful conclusion in this operation represents just one small victory in an ongoing war -- one we cannot lose," he said.

However, Morse pointed out that Gov. Jerry Brown's budget proposes to eliminate 230 out of the 400 special agents working for the Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement and the Bureau of Intelligence and Investigations.

About 23 of those potentially affected positions would come from the regional office in Fresno, he said.

"This cannot come at a worse time," he said. "We are all very concerned that if these cuts come to pass, the Central Valley could very likely be dealing with some of the same violence and kidnappings that are plaguing Mexico today."

Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209)385-2482 or yamaro@mercedsunstar.com.