Feds bust international drug cartel with Utah ties

18 of 240 arrested have headquarters in W.V., Kearns

Published: Friday, Aug. 1 2003 7:54 a.m. MDT

A major drug-trafficking operation with ties to Utah has been stopped.

Attorney General John Ashcroft announced Thursday the indictment of Mexican drug lord Ismael Zambada-Garcia following a 19-month investigation, dubbed Operation Trifecta, and the related arrests of more than 240 people in the United States and Mexico allegedly part of the Zambada-Garcia drug organization.

In Utah, 18 of those 240 people were charged in a 16-count federal indictment, most of the charges being possession and distribution of drugs.

"(The cartel) had a very significant Utah connection," U.S. Attorney for Utah Paul Warner said, noting that the local group was headquartered in the West Valley City and Kearns areas. "All crime is local. Although this was a national operation, the impact was very heavy in Utah."

Methamphetamine and cocaine were being shipped from Mexico to California and then delivered to Utah, Warner said. Investigators believe 10 pounds of meth and 11 pounds of cocaine were being shipped into the Beehive State every 10 to 14 days from the Zambada-Garcia cartel.

"These are not small fish," he said of the people arrested in Utah.

Warner called the Utah operation a "classic distribution network" with dealers using a variety of sources to get their drugs on the street.

Nationally, the cartel is alleged to have delivered more than 1,000 kilograms of cocaine to New York with an estimated street value of $17 million between August 2001 and June 2002, and 1,770 kilograms with an estimated street value of $30 million to the Chicago area.

In Utah, SWAT teams began rounding up those named in the Utah indictment about 4 a.m. Thursday. As of Thursday evening, 12 of the 18 individuals had been arrested and six were still at large. The roundup followed a six-month investigation locally that involved 11 different police agencies from Provo to Ogden as well as the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office.

The two men believed to be leading the Utah branch of the organization were arrested Wednesday night in Las Vegas along with a third member of the Utah group.

Hipolito Lopez and Pedro Luis Lopez had a "significant" amount of cash on them when they were arrested but Warner did not want to comment Thursday what they were doing.

In addition to the individuals named in the indictment, a Salt Lake City business was also named. Warner said the owners of the business were not directly involved in drug dealing, but there was a "significant connection" between the business and the drug organization. The owners allegedly knew about the drug dealing but did not report it to authorities. Furthermore, the owners allegedly provided support for the dealers in the form of money and identification papers, Warner said.

The U.S. Attorney's Office is also seeking the seizure of assets and property from those indicted, including Vilo's Low Show Top Upholstery, 4669 W. 3500 South; Kolor Me Customs, 199 W. 4800 South; and 3 Kings Auto Body, 150 W. 4800 South.

In addition, the government is hoping to seize vehicles and up to $500,000 in drug money, Warner said.

Although Warner said the nationwide bust will not completely wipe out the meth problem in Utah, it should put a significant dent in it for the time being.

Because of the work by local law enforcers to crack down on meth labs in the state, many drug dealers have been forced to find suppliers outside of Utah, specifically in California and Mexico, Warner said. He predicted the fall of the Zambada-Garcia cartel "will put a temporary dent in the supply" of meth being shipped into Utah.

"We will show a continuing commitment to stop this garbage from coming into our state. Don't bring that garbage into Utah" is the message Warner said he had for other drug dealers.


E-mail: preavy@desnews.com

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