Phone taps and a routine traffic stop led a federally funded narcotics task force to arrest five Stanislaus County men and two Merced County men suspected of distributing methamphetamine in Modesto and Ceres.
Along with the arrests, the Fresno Methamphetamine Task Force seized 53 pounds of meth in the past two months, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
An affidavit filed last week in federal court describes how narcotics investigators intercepted telephone conversations to listen in as the suspects spoke in coded references to orchestrate meth transactions.
The arrested suspects are:
• David Godinez, 28, of Modesto;
• Jose Refugio Alcantar, 26, of Ceres;
• Uriel Contreras Cortes, 41, of Ceres;
• Erik Cervantes-Aguilar, 26, of Ceres;
• Miguel Para-Rosas, 27, of Ceres;
• Fernando Avila, 38, of Delhi;
• Rafael Mendez Esparza, 37, of Merced.
The suspects face federal charges of conspiring to distribute meth, according to U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner.
Special Agent Mark Putnam of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, wrote in the affidavit that drug traffickers communicate with each other using numerical codes, code words and false names to throw off law enforcement.
The investigators began tapping the phones in April. Later that month, they heard of a possible drug delivery during a conversation between Godinez and Esparza in which the two discussed meeting.
Esparza told Godinez he would be available "after his child got out of school in two to two and one-half hours," according to the affidavit.
Putnam wrote in the affidavit the coded conversation meant the drug shipment would be ready in 2 to 2½ hours.
Godinez told Esparza he needed a "break," because "it's full," which meant Godinez wanted a break in shipments because he had not sold his supply of drugs, Putnam wrote.
The phone taps allowed the investigators to pinpoint Esparza's location -- a home in the 1500 block of Ohio Avenue, north of Paradise Road and west of South Carpenter Road in west Modesto.
Putnam wrote in the affidavit that he believed Esparza delivered drugs to Godinez at the Ohio Avenue home.
While investigators continued to listen to phone conversations about possible drug deal locations in Modesto, the California Highway Patrol encountered Esparza driving a Nissan in Delhi.
Shortly before 1 p.m. May 17, a CHP officer pulled over Esparza because the vehicle's rear license plate was obstructed from view. Esparza told the officer he was on his way to Avila's home nearby.
Inside the vehicle the officer found 10 brick-shaped packages containing nearly 18 pounds of meth, according to the affidavit.
After Esparza was taken into custody, investigators continued listening to tapped phone conversations between Godinez, Avila, Alcantar and Uriel. Investigators said the men were discussing drug transactions.
The phone calls helped investigators track a drug shipment made by an unidentified man from Los Angeles along Highway 99 to Godinez at the Ohio Avenue home, according to the affidavit.
The investigators overheard one individual complaining about the quality of the 2 kilos of meth he was about to buy. Godinez assured the buyer that the kilos arrived like "campeones," or champions in Spanish.
The phone calls helped investigators find where the meth was being stored -- a location in the 2900 block of McCord Way in Ceres, just south of Kinser Road and west of Highway 99.
On Tuesday, authorities served search warrants in Merced and Stanislaus counties, seizing more than 35 pounds of meth and arresting Godinez, Alcantar, Cortes, Cervantes-Aguilar, Para-Rosas and Avila.
If convicted, the defendants face 10 years to life in prison and a $4 million fine.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2394.