Feds bust Modesto-based heroin ring

SACRAMENTO — Federal authorities say they have busted a major heroin ring, based in Modesto, that was responsible for smuggling $17.5 million in heroin from Mexico and distributing it throughout the Central Valley and Bay Area.

A federal grand jury indicted 21 Mexican and U.S. citizens on various charges connected with the operation, agents announced Thursday.

Fabio Cazares-Zamora, 36, and Martha Garibay-Hernandez, both of Modesto, are in federal custody in Fresno, charged with conspiracy to import heroin into the United States and to smuggle heroin trafficking proceeds back to Mexico, authorities announced Thursday.

Another Modesto man, Jose Luis Lopez, 31, is in federal custody on charges of conspiracy to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute heroin.

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, the heroin smuggled into the United States from Mexico and the bulk cash smuggled back to Mexico were transported in elaborate hidden compartments within the engines or transmissions of specially built vehicles.

A map distributed by authorities shows the heroin coming from Michoacán, Mexico, through Tijuana and Modesto and out to several Bay Area cities.

"This heroin organization operating out of California's Central Valley and supplying much of the Bay Area with this dangerous drug has been effectively dismantled," said Anthony D. Williams, DEA special agent in charge.

Recent large heroin seizures show a resurgence of the drug in California unseen since the early 1970s, law enforcement officials said. The flood of black tar heroin into the San Francisco area has driven down prices from as much as $500 an ounce to about $140 an ounce, acting U.S. Attorney Law- rence Brown said.

The heroin importation and distribution conspiracies carry possible sentences of 10 years to life in prison, along with a maximum fine of $4 million. The bulk cash smuggling conspiracy charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a maximum $250,000 fine.

Charges in the indictment unsealed Thursday include distribution of heroin within 1,000 feet of a school or playground, conspiracy to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute heroin, and possession of heroin with intent to distribute.

The federal indictment followed last week's arrest by state drug agents of a Mexican national accused of concealing 70 pounds of heroin in a secret compartment in the dashboard of his Lincoln Town Car. The seizure of heroin valued at $7 million was the largest ever in San Mateo County, south of San Francisco, state Attorney General Jerry Brown said.

Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at or 578-2337.