A three month investigation by the city's District Attorney's Office, local and New York City DEA agents and members of various police departments shut down a cocaine trafficking pipeline between Manhattan and Philadelphia involving members of the notorious Mexico-based Sinaloa Cartel, authorities announced today.
The bust netted 28 kilos of cocaine worth about $2.8 million, 11 properties, five guns, $300,000 in cash, one motorcycle and 16 luxury vehicles, including a Mercedes, a Corvette, a Cadillac Escalade and a Lexus.
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"On every corner and across the city, residents are demanding we do something about gun violence," said District Attorney Seth Williams, noting that there have been 146 homicides as of this afternoon. The number is the highest since Mayor Michael Nutter took office in 2008.
"To reduce gun violence, you have to reduce the supply and demand of drugs on the street in our city," Williams said. "Hopefully, this investigation will send a message to Philadelphians that we are doing something and to thugs selling poison on our streets that we are listening to your telephone lines."
Police first learned of the activity when they made a series of arrests in September of 2011. One of the defendants became an informant and tipped off authorities to a number of auto body shops across the city that install hidden compartments in cars for the transport of drugs.
"What we found to be particular to this organization is these
individuals would transport drugs through the turnpike in hidden
compartments of vehicles," said chief of the District Attorney's Dangerous Drug Offenders Unit Jan McDermott. She said that, in an attempt
to avoid apprehension, the suspects would drive to New York, park their
vehicles in garages and travel to drug buys in taxi cabs.
Buyers allegedly loaded suitcases with cocaine, hailed cabs back to
their cars and packed the suitcases into the vehicles' covert
compartments for the trip back to Philadelphia.
The informant from the 2011 arrests led officers to a garage on the 3000 block of Martha Street in Kensington where drugs were allegedly being sold. Authorities said the ring headquartered there moved about a quarter pound of cocaine every few weeks, distributing it throughout Philadelphia and New Jersey.
Dubbing the investigation "Operation Martha's Vineyard," detectives allegedly made an undercover drug purchase from the garage, then obtained permission to tap the phone of the garage's owner, Anibal Cruz, 45. "That was where it all started," McDermott said. "That initial buy."
Cruz was no stranger to police – McDermott said his name and number popped up in connection with the Sinaloa Cartel during the the investigation leading up to the 2011 arrests.
Jose Roberto Felix Soto, 28, allegedly oversaw the actual drug sales at the garage, while Cruz took a cut of the profits.
Investigators said Jacqueline Rodriguez, 26, took over for Soto
when he traveled to Florida for eight days and sold drugs to undercover
officers at least twice.
Jose Roberto Felix Soto
The information authorities gathered from monitoring Cruz's phone uncovered other garages allegedly involved in the ring and alerted detectives of the times and dates of future drug transactions, as well as the types of vehicles slated to transport them.
It also uncovered a cockfighting operation that Cruz allegedly ran from the garage. He is charged with multiple counts of animal cruelty in addition to possession with intent to distribute, conspiracy and unlawful use of a communication facility.
Arrested early on were Orlando Torres and Kevan Grant, 27, who authorities said helped identify where the drugs were coming from and who was supplying them.
What McDermott called "the first massive seizure" in the investigation occurred on Mother's Day, May 13. Police stopped a speeding Jeep Laredo in Northeast Philadelphia, seized 10 kilos of cocaine from a compartment beneath its floorboards and arrested Juan Rivera, 26, and his wife Lisette Pichardo, both of San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The Jeep Laredo
On May 20, officers stopped a Dodge Durango and arrested its driver, Alexis Matos Colon, 35, who first led them on a brief but high speed chase, hitting a car and a police cruiser before coming to a stop. Colon was injured in the accident, during which, detectives noted, he was not wearing a seat belt.
Alexis Matos Colon
Investigators, who said Colon was one of the operation's key players and organized the trips to purchase
coke from New York, allegedly seized 18 kilos of the drug in a compartment hidden inside the Dodge similar to that installed in the Jeep.
Authorities said 18 kilograms of cocaine were inside these suitcases
The arrests have drawn attention to a separate issue: the vehicles' stash areas themselves. "These
compartments are becoming a big problem," McDermott said. "Garages
throughout the city are installing them for the purpose of transporting
Williams said that he, along with the Pennsylvania Association of District Attorneys, is supporting
legislation pending in Harrisburg that would outlaw the sophisticated
units, which are are outfitted with hydraulics and can be opened only by
pushing a button inside the car.
"We're trying to push for that legislation so that the mere possession of these compartments will be a crime," Williams said.
In the case of the vehicles involved
in this drug ring, the buttons were hidden so well that authorities had
to manually pry open the compartments.
Other arrests in the bust included Ricardo Rivera Colon, 36, Jorge Rivera, 38, Keyshla Maria Rodriguez, 22, and Miguel Cruz, 32.
Ricardo Rivera Colon
Keyshla Maria Rodriguez
Angel Trent, 22, and Eric Encarnacion, 48, were taken into custody during stings
in which DEA agents in New York monitored them as they allegedly made drug buys and local authorities stopped them on their way
back to Philadelphia.
Angel Vasques, 25, Pete Rodriguez, 40, and Juan Rodriguez, 44, were involved in the ring but were "lower on the food chain," McDermott said.