A federal indictment unsealed Thursday brought charges against 27 members of an alleged meth smuggling operation out of Pomona and Ontario, California. In a predawn raid, federal and local agencies arrested 16 of the indicted defendants. Officials are calling the bust "Operation Crystal Light."
A few additional defendants were already in custody on separate charges and four are fugitives. Police are looking specifically for the alleged ring leader, Jose Juan Garcia Barron — who they say has ties to the Mexican drug carted La Familia Michoacana (LFM).
Authorities say Barron would purchase meth from a supplier in Mexico and arrange its shipment to the U.S., where another defendant, Martin Barron Alcazar, would receive the shipment and direct it to a stash house in Ontario.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Shawn Nelson said that the operation resembled the one portrayed in the James Bond Movie, "License to Kill."
Nelson said the group smuggled several pounds (sometimes referred to in taped conversations as "donuts") a day of liquified methamphatamine concealed in gasoline tanks.
"It's easier to smuggle the drugs that way, it's much harder to detect," Nelson said.
Once at their Ontario stash house, "they would use various chemicals, acetone, turpentine, that re-crystalizes it into the white, crystal form, which is what the customers on the street want to buy," said Nelson.
The indictment goes all the way down the chain of distribution to those accused of selling the final consumable product to customers, at about $1,200 per ounce.
The investigation began in April 2011 after a kidnapping led law enforcement to the alleged drug ring. What followed was wiretaps, intercepted text messages, and undercover officers arranging to buy drugs from the defendants.
Each defendant is accused of distribution of methamphatamine, which carries anywhere from 5 years to life in federal prison, depending on prior convictions. The 16 arrested denfendants were expected in court Thursday afternoon in Downtown L.A.
Meth, which is highly addictive, is probably the most problematic drug in Southern California at the moment, Nelson said. He called Thursday's bust "a dent, a good dent," in area meth trafficking.
Also on Thursday, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration announced a memorandum of cooperation with Mexican officials on cracking down on meth production and smuggling. The agreement calls for greater intelligence-sharing on the drug, as well as joint training for law enforcement from both countries. The US State Department has pledged $12 million to the Mexican government to help with a crackdown.
According to the DEA, "Mexico has experienced a dramatic increase in clandestine methamphetamine lab and precursor chemical seizures nearly 1,000 percent between 2010 and 2011." In addition, in 2011, "Southwest border seizures of meth totaled 7,338 kilograms, more than twice the amount seized in 2009."
FBI and local officials said that Thursday's raid in Pomona did not involve any collaboration with Mexican agencies.