The greatest seizures of heroin in Utah were aimed at knocking out production of the illegal drug "from the farm to the arm," according to U.S. Attorney Brent D. Ward.
Last week, alleged heroin poppy growers from Mexico were arrested in Salt Lake City, along with other Mexicans charged with being in the dope business.Ward, accompanied by federal and state law enforcement officers from many agencies, held a press conference Tuesday afternoon on last Friday's heroin and cocaine busts. In Salt Lake City that day, nine Mexicans and U.S. citizens were arrested.
The two separate alleged conspiracies involved undercover agents and confidential sources.
A question not answered at the press conference was whether officers wanted Mexican nationals to come to the United States because they did not trust that country's government to extradite them.
In one case, federal officers claim defendant Manuel Estrada-Tapia "attempted to contact by phone California associates in order to set up a 25 kilogram cocaine transaction within the next few days." That is 55 pounds of cocaine.
Officers seized close to 10 pounds of heroin and nearly 5 pounds of cocaine and confiscated two pistols.
As part of an undercover operation that started in October, they purchased more than 1.5 pounds of heroin and half a pound of another substance that was supposed to be heroin but turned out to be 45 percent morphine instead.
More than $67,500 used in drug buys is lost to the government.
The heroin - varieties called "black tar" and "Mexican brown" - was estimated at more than 70 percent pure, with a street value of nearly $12 million. The theoretical value was calculated based on its being "cut" by dealers until it was only about 4 percent pure, to be sold in quantities as small as an eighth of a gram.
Defendants were arraigned Tuesday before U.S. Magistrate Ronald N. Boyce on two separate complaints. They are:
- Santos Tapia, accused of being a broker who set up drug deals with two sets of Mexican dealers. He is charged in five counts of one complaint and four in the other. He was listed as a native of Mexico living in Salt Lake City.
Santos Tapia is charged with every count of the twin complaints, except three. The charges include conspiracy, distributing drugs, smuggling, and possessing drugs with the intention of distributing them.
- Gregorio Moreno, Alfonso Moreno and Antonio Alonso, accused of being farmers who grew poppies for the heroin trade and accompanied their product to Utah from Mexico. They are charged in five counts of conspiracy to smuggle, conspiracy to possess heroin, as well as possessing, distributing, and smuggling the drug.
- Lucio Brito, charged in six counts, is a Santa Ana, Calif., resident who said he is an immigrant. He is accused of distributing cocaine, morphine and heroin; possessing heroin with the intention of distributing it; possessing cocaine intending to distribute it, and using firearms in drug crimes.
- Jerardo Rico, who said he is a resident of Mexico, and Federico Romero Mendez, Mexico, each accused of the same three counts: possessing heroin and cocaine with the intention of distributing the drugs, and using firearms in committing drug crimes.
- Ubaldo Ortiz-Silva, also known as Frank Silva, and Manuel Estrada-Tapia, each charged with two counts, possessing cocaine and heroin with the intention of distributing the drugs.
During the arraignment, the charges were laboriously read and then translated into Spanish. Most of the defendants said they could not afford counsel, and Boyce appointed lawyers. But several retained lawyers privately.
A hearing was scheduled for Friday on whether they should continue in detention. Meanwhile, all are being held in the Salt Lake City-County Jail.
They were shackled and handcuffed during the hearing, and chains jingled continuously. One man signed an "X" to his affidavit of impecuniosity because he could not write his name.
Following the arraignment, Ward told reporters that the busts show there is "major drug trafficking" in Utah.
"It appears that this particular Mexican connection has been responsible for supplying heroin to the Intermountain area," including Salt Lake City, he said.
Last year, about 70 pounds of heroin was seized at the country's borders, he said. The Salt Lake busts amounted to 5 percent of that amount - a huge volume of the drug, considering that the 70 pounds was destined for distribution throughout the United States.
"So there is a message there, a grave message," about the amount of drug use in this area. He acknowledged that the drugs could have been intended for distribution throughout the region, not necessarily aimed at Salt Lake City alone.
A year ago, a Mexican connection drug ring was destroyed. The new allegations suggest that when one source is controlled, "new sources crop up," Ward said.
John T. Nielsen, Utah's public safety commissioner, said this is one of a host of narcotics investigations in the state. He hopes the message will go out clearly that all federal, state and local agencies will be arrayed against the drug business.