Three heroin poppy farmers in the "Mexican Connection II" case pleaded guilty Thursday afternoon in U.S. District Court, avoiding a trial that had been scheduled for Monday.

Antonio Alonso, Gregorio Moreno and Alfonso Moreno grew poppies in Mexico and brought the heroin they produced to Utah for a big sale in June - a sale to a federal drug informant.That bust was part of a crackdown that resulted in the seizure of 10 pounds of "black tar" and "Mexican brown" heroin and 5 pounds of cocaine, the confiscation of two pistols, and the arrest of nine people. The drugs had a street value of nearly $12 million.

The arrests were aimed at drying up illicit drugs "from the farm to the arm," said U.S. Attorney Brent D. Ward.

Gregorio Moreno faces a possible maximum sentence of 80 years in prison and a $4 million fine, while the others could be sentenced to terms up to 60 years and fined $3 million each.

The guilty-plea session dragged on for 21/2 hours Thursday, ending at nearly 5:30 p.m. Judge David K. Winder set sentencing for 8 a.m. on Jan. 13. All statements had to be translated into Spanish, and some of the legal concepts were unclear to the defendants.

This involved three charges: Count 1 - in Utah between June 13 and July 1, the three conspired to smuggle heroin from Mexico; 2 - they conspired to possess heroin with the intention of distributing it; 3 - on June 13, they sold more than 100 grams of it to an informant.

Gregorio Moreno pleaded guilty to all three charges. He must go to prison for at least 10 years.

Alfonso Moreno and Alonso admitted guilt to counts 1 and 3, facing minimum mandatory terms of five years.

The difficulties began when Alfonso Moreno was about to enter his plea but balked. It turned out that because of family ties, he did not want to go ahead of his uncle, Gregorio, because that would make it seem he was pressuring the older man.

So Gregorio Moreno went before his nephew, at times making jokes. When he signed the waiver of rights he would surrender upon entering a guilty plea, he marked his "X" on the document.

Winder asked him questions to establish that he had committed the crimes. Did he agree with others to distribute heroin? "No. We had our obligations," Gregorio Moreno said.

Did he have heroin? "Yes," replied the defendant.

He first imported it, right? "No."

Did he bring it to Utah? "Yes."

"Did you possess it here in Utah?"

"No," Gregorio Moreno said.

Finally, the judge asked him to explain in his own words what happened to the heroin. "We gave it to the informant," he replied.

After Alonso pleaded guilty, Winder asked him whether he intended to distribute the drug.

"No," Alonso replied.

"What were you intending to do with that heroin?"

"To pass it on to the informant. He told us to."

Each man was named in five counts originally. The remaining charges will be dropped in exchange for their guilty pleas.