“Operation Backpack”: Feds Takedown Sinaloa Cartel Network in SoCal

Yaqui for Borderland Beat from: SDUT and USDOJ

A year-long investigation led to 85 people being charged with narcotics and money laundering, by federal law enforcement authorities.

Federal authorities in San Diego said Thursday they had broken up a large network of drug dealers linked to the Sinaloa cartel that peddled methamphetamine, heroin and fentanyl from East County to points across the nation.

At a news conference at the local office of the Drug Enforcement Administration, officials said 85 people had been indicted for their roles in eight separate drug importation and distribution groups. On Thursday federal and local law enforcement fanned out and arrested 47 of the 85 defendants across southern California and reaching into Colorado and as far north as Alaska.

The raids and arrests capped a year-long investigation that started with busts of small-time, street-level drug dealers and grew into a sweeping probe that involved a 10-month federal wiretap, dozens of search warrants and undercover agents, said First Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Mazza.

In addition to the drug charges, the indictments include money laundering charges aimed at what was described as the tens of thousands of dollars in bulk cash that was collected after the sales. Agents with the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation Division traced the funds in their role as part of the large task force that investigated the drug organizations.
Mazza said the probe, dubbed “Operation Backpack,” was one of the most significant drug investigations in the San Diego area in recent years.
The eight indictments unsealed Thursday shed little light on the details of drug networks operations. Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Sutton, the lead prosecutor on the case, said the drug gangs received smuggled narcotics from Mexico, then distributed them to suppliers in the state and across the country.
They were also responsible for shipping back the cash from the sales, most of it smuggled from the U.S. into Mexico in large bulk cash shipments, into the hands of Sinaloa-cartel-connected traffickers in Mexico.
Sutton said the indictments and arrests are “a critical strike against the Sinaloa cartel.”
During the course of the investigation agents seized 175 pounds of drugs, firearms and at least $50,000 in cash. The arrests on Thursday added another four pounds of methamphetamine and two guns to that total.
While the eight networks operated independently, Sutton said that they were also affiliated with each other in some ways, sharing suppliers and even some customers for the drugs, and working collaboratively in some aspects of their operations.
San Diego County has long been a shipment point for illegal drugs smuggled into the country from Mexico and Central and South America. DEA Agent Steven Woodland said at the news conference that a little more than a decade ago a pound of methamphetamine sold for about $17,000.
But since then the Sinaloa cartel, which by 2010 had wrested control of the lucrative Tijuana smuggling plaza after the demise of the Arellano-Félix drug trafficking organization, has flooded the market to the point where the same amount of the drug sells for about $1,200, Woodland said.
Most of the 47 people arrested Thursday are due to appear in federal court in downtown San Diego Friday afternoon.
                                                              
San Diego: Eight indictments were unsealed today in San Diego federal court charging 85 members of drug distribution networks linked to the Sinaloa Cartel, with federal drug trafficking, money laundering and firearms offenses.
During the coordinated takedown that began early this morning, investigators executed over a dozen search warrants and seized approximately four pounds of methamphetamine and two firearms. As of today at 1 p.m., 47 of the 85 defendants are either in federal or state custody. Authorities are continuing to search for 38 defendants. Many of the defendants are scheduled to be arraigned before U.S. Magistrate Judge Allison H. Goddard at 2:00 p.m. tomorrow.
According to the indictments and other publicly filed court documents, this year-long investigation led by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Internal Revenue Service targeted multiple San Diego-based drug distribution and money laundering networks led respectively by Juan Carlos OCHOA, Rene VALDEZ Jr., Ramon CASTILLO, Michael WRIGHT, Alfonso ARROYO, Douglas BOWEN, Samuel BECERRA, and Javier VERGARA. These affiliated networks supplied multi-kilogram quantities of controlled substances (primarily methamphetamine and heroin but also fentanyl) to dozens of subdistributors located throughout Southern California. These networks were also responsible for laundering tens of thousands of dollars in narcotics proceeds back to Sinaloa Cartel-associated drug traffickers in Mexico. During this investigation, agents coordinated seizures of narcotics and drug proceeds throughout San Diego County and across the United States.
To avoid detection by law enforcement, the defendants also utilized various encrypted communication services like Signal and WhatsApp to communicate among themselves. Despite their sophisticated efforts, law enforcement penetrated this network with a variety of investigative techniques, including physical surveillance, obtaining phone records, financial documents, tracking warrants on telephones and vehicles, and undercover agents. Over the course of the investigation, agents obtained dozens of search warrants and conducted a 10-month-long federal wiretap to track the communications and the location of the defendants. In conjunction with the wiretaps, agents ultimately seized approximately 175 pounds of methamphetamine, heroin, and fentanyl tied to these networks, approximately $50,000 in cash, multiple firearms, and a 2020 Cadillac Escalade (valued at over $115,000).  
“Today we sent a message to drug traffickers in our community. If you sell drugs in San Diego, we will find you and prosecute you to the full extent of the law,” said U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer. “I want to congratulate the outstanding federal, state, and local law enforcement cooperation that has resulted in this highly successful investigation. This case represents yet another critical strike against the Sinaloa Cartel and its U.S.-based networks.”
“Today’s operation was about community care taking,” said DEA Special Agent in Charge Karen Flowers.  “We took criminals off the street in South County who were selling drugs and committing violent crimes – robberies – home invasions – identity theft – fraud – and other property crimes.  The void left is an opportunity for the communities in South County to exhale and breathe in fresh air.  Freedom is priceless.  Today South County is free to live without a criminal undertone which eroded their daily quality of life.”
“A significant portion of the indictments unsealed today are alleged money laundering conspiracy violations and the asset forfeiture allegations,” stated Assistant Special Agent in Charge Johnathan Smith.  “Multiple defendants are charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering violations, a charge which carries a statutory maximum sentence of 20-years imprisonment.  These are serious crimes that come with serious time.”
This case was led by the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Narcotics Task Force (NTF) and the Internal Revenue Service. The NTF is a DEA-led task force comprised of federal and local law enforcement from the DEA, San Diego County Sheriff’s Department (SDSD), the San Diego Police Department (SDPD), United States Border Patrol (USBP), and the San Diego County Probation Office. Agents and officers from the United States Marshals Service, United States Secret Service, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons also provided vital assistance for the investigation. Attorneys from the Department of Justice, Office of Enforcement Operations, Electronic Surveillance Unit, likewise provided critical work as part of the investigative team.
This case is the result of the ongoing efforts by the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF), a partnership that brings together the combined expertise and unique abilities of federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. The principal mission of the OCDETF program is to identify, disrupt, dismantle and prosecute high level members of drug trafficking, weapons trafficking and money laundering organizations and enterprises.
The United States is represented in court by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Matthew J. Sutton, and Mario J. Peia.
The public is reminded that an indictment is not evidence of guilt. The defendants are presumed innocent and entitled to a fair trial at which the government has the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. 
Defendant Information 
19-cr-3624-CAB Indictment – Click HERE
Defendants                                                                                     Criminal Case No: 19-cr-3624-CAB
Defendant Number
Juan Carlos Ochoa   El Cajon, CA
Belinda Maria Menke  El Cajon, CA
Oscar Clemente-Perez  El Cajon, CA
Anton Dockery    El Cajon, CA
Amira Novelo-Torres  Tijuana, MX
Guillermo Castellano     El Cajon, CA
Monica Alcantar   El Cajon, CA
Alberto Frayre     Chula Vista, CA
Ivan Rodriguez     El Cajon, CA
Brian Perin     San Diego, CA
Edward DiBartola     San Diego, CA
Juanita Ortiz     El Cajon, CA
Lorena Torres   El Cajon, CA
Marcus Dewayne Caldwell    San Diego, CA
Candace Marie Spears     San Diego, CA
Eduardo Lerma     El Cajon, CA
Gene Fitzgerald     San Diego, CA
Melissa Young    San Diego, CA
Jessie Avina     El Cajon, CA
Summary of Charges
Conspiracy to Distribute Controlled Substances (21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 846)
Conspiracy to Launder Monetary Instruments (18 U.S.C. §§ 1956(a)(2) and (h))
Maximum Penalties: For the drug charges, term of custody including a mandatory minimum 10 years and up to life in prison, $10 million fine and a lifetime of supervised release. For money laundering charges, term of custody up to 20 years in prison, a fine of $500,000 or twice the value of the monetary instrument or funds involved, and three years of supervised release.
19-cr-3625-CAB Indictment – Click HERE
Defendants                                                                                     Criminal Case No: 19-cr-3625-CAB
Defendant Number
Alfonso Arroyo
San Diego, CA
James Anthony Tate
San Diego, CA
Alice Chairez
San Diego, CA
Zena Marie Gonzalez
San Diego, CA
Steven Geiss
San Diego, CA
Tommy Diego Duenas
San Diego, CA
Josephina Hernandez
San Diego, CA
Kajlid Jafar Wilks
San Diego, CA
Summary of Charges
Conspiracy to Distribute Controlled Substances (21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 846)
Conspiracy to Launder Monetary Instruments (18 U.S.C. §§ 1956(a)(2) and (h))
Possession with Intent to Distribute Methamphetamine (21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1))
Maximum Penalties: For the drug charges, term of custody including a mandatory minimum 10 years and up to life in prison, $10 million fine and a lifetime of supervised release. For money laundering charges, term of custody up to 20 years in prison, a fine of $500,000 or twice the value of the monetary instrument or funds involved, and three years of supervised release.
19-cr-3626-CAB Indictment – Click HERE
Defendants                                                                                     Criminal Case No: 19-cr-3626-CAB
Defendant Number
Samuel Becerra
San Diego, CA
Gabrielle Logue
San Diego, CA
Kelly Daniels
San Diego, CA
Larry Meisner
San Diego, CA
Walter Kuttner
Spring Valley, CA
Kelly Jean Kelly
San Diego, CA
San Diego, CA
Rodolfo Andrade
Chula Vista, CA
Alfredo Gomez
San Diego, CA
Summary of Charges
Conspiracy to Distribute Controlled Substances (21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 846)
Conspiracy to Launder Monetary Instruments (18 U.S.C. §§ 1956(a)(2) and (h))
Maximum Penalties: For the drug charges, term of custody including a mandatory minimum 10 years and up to life in prison, $10 million fine and a lifetime of supervised release. For money laundering charges, term of custody up to 20 years in prison, a fine of $500,000 or twice the value of the monetary instrument or funds involved, and three years of supervised release.
19-cr-3627-CAB Inictment – Click HERE
Defendants                                                                                     Criminal Case No: 19-cr-3627-CAB
Defendant Number
Douglas Bowen
San Diego, CA
Erick Cifuentes
San Diego, CA
John Bordwell Jr.
San Diego, CA
Raya Jaye Kimball
San Diego, CA
Stephen Robert Chavez
San Diego, CA
Robert David Houser
San Diego, CA
Justin Scott Baker
San Diego, CA
Janette Lee Taylor
San Diego, CA
Emilio Vanegas
San Diego, CA
Christopher Nobis
San Diego, CA
Maximino Padilla
San Diego, CA
Erika Marlene Ramirez-Ramirez
San Diego, CA
Heaven Rapp
San Diego, CA
Shelley Marie Cobb
San Diego, CA
Sarrah Jean Kent
San Diego, CA
David Hopkins
San Diego, CA
Matthew Bogan
San Diego, CA
Emily Uscanga
San Diego, CA
Michael Bowen
Colorado Springs, CA
Edson Garcia
San Diego, CA
Brandon Brooks
San Diego, CA
Raheem Jackson
San Diego, CA
Heather Kieley
San Diego, CA
Yvette Romero
San Diego, CA
Bobby Lee Crisp
San Diego, CA
Dario Navarro
San Diego, CA
Summary of Charges
Conspiracy to Distribute Controlled Substances (21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 846)
Conspiracy to Launder Monetary Instruments (18 U.S.C. §§ 1956(a)(2) and (h))
Felon in Possession of a Firearm (18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1))
Importation of a Controlled Substance (21 U.S.C. §§ 952, 960 and 963)
Possession with Intent to Distribute Methamphetamine (21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1))
Maximum Penalties: For the drug charges, term of custody including a mandatory minimum 10 years and up to life in prison, $10 million fine and a lifetime of supervised release. For money laundering charges, term of custody up to 20 years in prison, a fine of $500,000 or twice the value of the monetary instrument or funds involved, and three years of supervised release.
19-cr-3628-CAB Indictment – Click HERE
Defendants                                                                                     Criminal Case No: 19-cr-3628-CAB
Defendant Number
Ramon Castillo
San Diego, CA
Samuel Jones
San Diego, CA
Julio Noriega
San Diego, CA
Johanna Trujillo
San Diego, CA
Summary of Charges
Conspiracy to Distribute Controlled Substances (21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 846)
Conspiracy to Launder Monetary Instruments (18 U.S.C. §§ 1956(a)(2) and (h))
Maximum Penalties: For the drug charges, term of custody including a mandatory minimum 10 years and up to life in prison, $10 million fine and a lifetime of supervised release. For money laundering charges, term of custody up to 20 years in prison, a fine of $500,000 or twice the value of the monetary instrument or funds involved, and three years of supervised release.
19-cr-3629-CAB Indictment – Click HERE
Defendants                                                                                     Criminal Case No: 19-cr-3629-CAB
Defendant Number
Rene Valdez Jr.
San Diego, CA
Araceli S. Lomeli
San Diego, CA
David Valdez
San Diego, CA
Robert Tate Allen
San Diego, CA
Sergio Eduardo Gutierrez Martinez
Tijuana, MX
Milton Perez Cruz
Tijuana, MX
Summary of Charges
Conspiracy to Distribute Controlled Substances (21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 846)
Conspiracy to Launder Monetary Instruments (18 U.S.C. §§ 1956(a)(2) and (h))
Maximum Penalties: For the drug charges, term of custody including a mandatory minimum 10 years and up to life in prison, $10 million fine and a lifetime of supervised release. For money laundering charges, term of custody up to 20 years in prison, a fine of $500,000 or twice the value of the monetary instrument or funds involved, and three years of supervised release.
19-cr-3630-CAB Indictment – Click HERE
Defendants                                                                                     Criminal Case No: 19-cr-3630-CAB
Defendant Number
Javier Vergara
San Diego, CA
Raul Alonso Varela-Ruiz
San Diego, CA
Michelangelo Becerra
San Diego, CA
Candice Harrington
San Diego, CA
Amanda Bitticks
San Diego, CA
Eduardo Pardo
San Diego, CA
Rose Velasquez
San Diego, CA
Summary of Charges
Conspiracy to Distribute Controlled Substances (21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 846)
Conspiracy to Launder Monetary Instruments (18 U.S.C. §§ 1956(a)(2) and (h))
Maximum Penalties: For the drug charges, term of custody including a mandatory minimum 10 years and up to life in prison, $10 million fine and a lifetime of supervised release. For money laundering charges, term of custody up to 20 years in prison, a fine of $500,000 or twice the value of the monetary instrument or funds involved, and three years of supervised release.
19-cr-3631-CAB Indictment – Click HERE
Defendants                                                                                     Criminal Case No: 19-cr-3631-CAB
Defendant Number
Michael Wright
San Diego, CA
Rhiannon Hiller
San Diego, CA
Michael Branch
San Diego, CA
Bryan Carlton
San Diego, CA
Charles Moore
San Diego, CA
Sara Syverson
San Diego, CA
Summary of Charges
Conspiracy to Distribute Controlled Substances (21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 846)
Conspiracy to Launder Monetary Instruments (18 U.S.C. §§ 1956(a)(2) and (h))
Maximum Penalties: For the drug charges, term of custody including a mandatory minimum 10 years and up to life in prison, $10 million fine and a lifetime of supervised release. For money laundering charges, term of custody up to 20 years in prison, a fine of $500,000 or twice the value of the monetary instrument or funds involved, and three years of supervised release.
Drug Enforcement Administration, Narcotics Task Force
Internal Revenue Service – Criminal Investigation
San Diego County Sheriff’s Department
United States Marshals Service
United States Border Patrol
United States Secret Service
United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives
Federal Bureau of Prisons
San Diego Police Department
El Cajon Police Department
Chula Vista Police Department
San Diego County Probation Office
San Diego County District Attorney’s Office
Department of Justice, Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces
Department of Justice, Office of Enforcement Operations
U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Alaska
U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Colorado
USAO – California, Southern
Contact: 
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Matthew J. Sutton (619) 546-8941 and Mario Peia (619) 546-9706
Press Release Number:  CAS19-0919_Gang Press Conference