Federal agents in Seattle this morning announced an interstate roundup of a large methamphetamine and cocaine distribution network whose local leader, they said, is a direct lieutenant of a major drug cartel in southern Mexico.
In a series of raids last week from Lynnwood to Northern California, agents arrested 31 people and have charged about 20 of them with federal drug crimes. The agents have seized more than 19 pounds of methamphetamine, a quarter pound of cocaine, about $60,000 in cash and 22 vehicles, many with specially-built secret compartments for smuggling drugs to Washington from Mexico.
Also collected were 23 guns, many of which agents spread across a table at Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) headquarters in Seattle this morning as the cooperative effort dubbed "Operation Arctic Chill" was unveiled.
The agents also said that the raids had uncovered what they called a "superlab" in Oakdale, Calif., capable of cooking up methamphetamine in 10-pound batches.
"We did dismantle a fairly sophisticated organization," said Leigh Winchell, the special agent in charge of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) in Seattle.
At the head of the network, the agents said, was Martin Oseguera-Chavez of Roy, Pierce County. Oseguera-Chavez is a trusted longtime soldier of the Sinaloa Cartel in Juarez, Mexico, and its leader, Juaquín "Chapo" Guzmán, said Arnold Moorin, special agent in charge of the local DEA office.
Oseguera-Chavez, 50, along with his wife, daughter, son-in-law and several other relatives, are charged along with many others in U.S. District Court in Tacoma with conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and cocaine.
According to the charging documents, the investigation was launched in April 2008, when ICE agents heard from a longtime drug informant that a man named Antonio Molina Abarca was moving a lot of drugs out of his Mexican store called Casa Trujillo on Pacific Avenue South in Tacoma.
Over the next year and a half, agents identified Oseguera-Chavez as the leader of the network and repeatedly observed large drug deals to identify all the middlemen and henchmen involved in the organization.
About 17 wiretaps were placed on the phones of various players, and agents identified a complicated code system the smugglers used, the documents said. For example, meth was sometimes referred to as "windows," "clothes" or "blind man."
The agents also tailed couriers who drove to California and back on drug runs, the charges say. They estimated the ring moved about 50 pounds of methamphetamine a month.
Finally, on Monday, raids were staged at Oseguera-Chavez's home in Roy and in Carnation, Federal Way, Lynnwood, Rainier in Pierce County, Yelm in Thurston County, Olympia, Tacoma and Vancouver, Wash.
Agents this morning said they don't yet know the full background of Oseguera-Chavez, but believe his organization sent drug money back to the cartel in Jalisco. He allegedly boasted to one informant that he had been running drugs for 20 years and had never been caught, the charges say.
"Sometimes people are just really good at their jobs, even if it's an illegal job, and it takes us a while to get to them," Winchell said.
At the same time, the agents acknowledged the bust, while significant, would do little to stem the flow of Mexican methamphetamine to Washington because the drug trade is simply too extensive.
"There's always an organization ready to step in," said Assistant Chief James Howatson of Tacoma Police, one of several local police agencies that helped with the investigation.
By Ian Ith - Seattle Times staff reporter
Ian Ith: 206-464-2109 or [email protected]