Six people have been arrested and charged in a drug trafficking ring that earned millions bringing hundreds of pounds of cocaine, methamphetamine and other drugs from Mexico into the Los Angeles area, federal prosecutors announced Thursday.
The arrests were made following the seizure of roughly 690 kilograms of the narcotics — or about 1,521 pounds — over the course of 10 months of investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, according to the Department of Justice. That amount includes nearly 400 kilograms of cocaine, 225 kilograms of methamphetamine, 53 kilograms of fentanyl and 12 kilograms of heroin.
Authorities also seized $4.7 million in the federal investigation known as “Operation Colombian Cargo.”
Among the six defendants are four Southern California residents while the other two are from New York City and Chicago. They are accused of taking part in a drug trafficking scheme that extended coast to coast in the U.S.
Three of the defendants have pleaded not guilty while the rest are still awaiting arraignment.
The narcotics, some of which came from Colombia, were typically smuggled from Mexico into the U.S. through the San Ysidro Port of Entry in San Diego, according to federal prosecutors.
They were hidden inside compartments in vehicles or in boxes that appeared to contain speakers before being delivered to homes in the Inland Empire and greater L.A. area, where they were stashed, prosecutors allege. From there, entire kilograms of the drugs were allegedly distributed to buyers in major U.S. cities such as Chicago, New York and Los Angeles.
A money laundering scheme was used to collect U.S. dollars and have pesos delivered to leaders of the drug ring in Mexico, according to prosecutors.
The six arrests, which were made beginning Tuesday night until Thursday morning, are part of a broader federal indictment that includes a total of 25 defendants. Those arrested this week include:
- Joshua Donovan Cortez, 31, of Rowland Heights, who allegedly ran a so-called stash house
- Wei Chang “Ray” Gong, 30, of Chicago, who is accused of money laundering and possessing nearly $600,000 in cash — an amount seized by authorities in 2016
- Remigio Alvarez Herrera, 49, of Maywood, who allegedly trafficked drugs
- Alejandro Medrano, 20, of San Diego, who allegedly trafficked drugs and was arrested upon entering the U.S. at the San Ysidro Port of Entry
- Jose Vargas, 61, of Huntington Park, who allegedly ran a so-called stash house
- Jiaze Xia, 23, of Flushing, Queens, New York, who prosecutors describe as a “key player” in the drug ring’s money laundering schemes
Xia, Medrano and Gong are expected to be transported to Los Angeles to face arraignment upon arrival.
Meanwhile, Cortez, Vargas and Herrera were already arraigned in U.S. District Court in L.A. and pleaded not guilty Wednesday afternoon.
A 24-count indictment in the case was unsealed Wednesday afternoon after being returned by a federal grand jury a year ago. It includes four other defendants who were arrested and have pending cases — two SoCal residents and two from Mexico City.
Pierre Vincent Fuentes, 30, of San Diego was arrested as an accused drug trafficker while Jimmy Zhi Qiang Yu, 45, of Pasadena allegedly acted as a money courier.
Rogelio Payan-Palma, 27, of Mexico City was arrested as an alleged leader in the drug ring and Guohua Luo, 35, a Chinese national who lives in Mexico City, was arrested as another alleged leader who also coordinated money laundering schemes.
Seventeen defendants in the federal indictment are faced with mandatory minimum sentences of 10 years in federal prison or up to life in prison without parole if they are convicted.
Throughout the investigation, authorities seized 236 pounds of meth in Cedar City, Utah and another 88 kilograms of meth that had just entered the U.S. at San Ysidro in 2016, according to prosecutors.
In 2017, 275 kilograms of cocaine was seized from Cortez’s residence, which was located across the street from a school in Bell, and 21 kilograms of fentanyl was seized in Chino, prosecutors said. Another 32 kilograms of fentanyl was seized in Sun Valley,
“Operation Colombian Cargo” has spanned years, and across the Americas, has resulted in the seizure of about $16 million in U.S. currency, roughly five tons of cocaine and 530 pounds of meth, according to federal authorities.