PALM RIVER — At the top of the Hillsborough County Sheriff Office's flow chart of a multi-tiered, multimillion dollar drug ring sits a 23-year-old Texas college student.
Victor Orozco, who said his hometown is Bradenton, was arrested June 1 in McAllen, Texas, home to his former school, South Texas College.
Since then, 33 players have been federally indicted and many are gang members from Palm River and Progress Village area, deputies announced Friday. Authorities seized 88 pounds of powder cocaine, $600,000 in cash, 1,200 pounds of marijuana, 1.1 pounds of crack cocaine, 13 vehicles, a watercraft, trailers and several firearms.
The drugs' street value was estimated at $2.5 million.
Orozco was studying criminal justice and business at South Texas College, home to 30,000 students, authorities said.
On the side, he managed a network with drug runners taking cocaine and marijuana from Texas to Florida and Illinois using semitrailers, deputies said.
"This particular shipment had limes, green and red bell peppers, lemons, cilantro, just loaded with produce," said Sgt. Greg Jennings, leader of the sheriff's gang enforcement unit.
"Operation Under Pressure" began in December 2008, when undercover detectives made drug buys from low-level members of local gangs.
More than 20 members of the Palm River Boys, 58th Street Boys, Progress Village Boys and the Eight-Deuce Click have been indicted.
Investigators were able to trace the drugs to the Latin Life Associates inside Tropical Acres Mobile Home Park in Riverview.
Working through the hierarchy, detectives determined all the evidence led to Orozco in Texas.
"It seems he was buying in bulk and sending it to a contact to be distributed," Jennings said.
Orozco, whom federal marshals transported to Florida after his arrest in Texas, is in the Pinellas County Jail. His charges are not listed on his booking information.
Charges for the others arrested range from small-time cocaine sales to conspiracy to distribute 5 kilograms or more.
"These are very, very serious drug offenses," said Hillsborough Chief Deputy Jose Docobo.
The Drug Enforcement Administration joined the investigation after deputies traced drugs back to Mexico.
Docobo said this bust was perhaps one of the most effective in disrupting criminal activity.
"These gangs basically controlled Palm River and Progress Village," he said.
People in the community told officers about the gang activity and spurred the investigation, deputies said.
Ola Lott started a neighborhood crime watch in the area and was instrumental in bringing gang issues to the forefront. On Friday, she said the drug bust announcement was a good day for the neighborhood.
"It's an awesome thing to know someone's got your back," she said.
By Danny Valentine and Robbyn Mitchell, Times Staff Writer
Saturday, August 14, 2010