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Mexican Cartels fuel drug activity in East Tennessee - HeraldCourier.com: News

Mexican Cartels fuel drug activity in East Tennessee

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Posted: Thursday, October 28, 2010 7:15 pm | Updated: 9:52 am, Mon Dec 24, 2012.

Last Friday, federal, state, and local authorities arrested 32 suspected drug traffickers -- most of them in Washington County Tenn.

The Department of Justice released the following names, but little else:

Renaldo Gonzalez Mojica, 33; Victor Ortiz Garcia, 26; Tomas Estrada Sarabia, 36; Antonio Herrera, 34; Manuel Perez Burelo, 33; Sergio Castaneda Rivera, 34; Andres Linares, 30; Luciano Hernandez Valiente, 33; Rodrigo Luna, 25; Amansio Garcia Juarez, 30; Orlando Leonel Zacarias, 21; Mario Hernandez Velazquez, 42; Adan Fernandez, 25; Martin Gomez, aka "Chicken," age unknown; Howard Frank Couch, 54; Jose Vergara, aka "Gordo," age unknown; Juan Salas, 29; Alberto Bautista Lopez, age unknown; Antonio Ruiz, 40; Arturo Salas, age unknown; Carlos Rodriguez, 24; Ejidio Lopez, 19; Eusebio Ramirez, 43; David Bonfil-Luna, 31; Jose DeLaPaz DeLaCruz, 27; Jesus Flores Villegas, 39; Jorge Mariano Salas, 29; Luis Osorio Luna, 29; Pablo Jose Pacheco, 47; Ramon Mercado Martinez, 27; Ricardo Lopez, 31; Stacey Williams, 41; Margarito Martinez Hernandez, age unknown; Paul Pelaez, age unknown.

Court records for the above case remain sealed, but two additional suspects appeared in Greeneville's U.S. District Court on Tuesday.

Renaldo Gonzalez Mojica, 33, and Victor Ortiz Garcia, 26, bring the arrest total to 34 people. Assistant U.S. Attorney Nancy Harr said two suspects are still at-large.

In court, officers escorted Mojica and Garcia to their seats. Both men were shackled at their hands and feet. They answered questions from U.S. Magistrate Judge Dennis Inman through a Spanish-language interpreter.

Mojica and Garcia were indicted on counts one and two of the federal grand jury case. Inman explained those charges as follows:

Count One - Conspiracy to distribute and possesion of five kilograms of cocaine from March of 2009 to October 14th of 2010. This charge is punishable by a mandatory minimum of 10 years in federal prison (max = life), a $4 million fine, and five years of supervised release.

Count Two - Conspiracy to distribute and possesion of 100 kilograms of marijuana from March of 2009 to October 14th of 2010. This charge is punishable by a mandatory minimum of five years in federal prison (max = 40), a $2 million fine, and four years of supervised release.

Inman said all 34 suspects charged in association with this case face counts one and two.

Inman said Mojica was charged with counts 9, 10, 28, 31, 36, and 49 -- all for distribution of cocaine on separate occasions. Each of those charges are punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine.

Mojica and Garcia told the court they could not afford private attorneys.

Inman appointed Knoxville Attorney Donny Young to represent Mojica, and Johnson City Attorney Dan Smith to represent Garcia.

Through those attorneys, Mojica and Garcia pled not guilty to all charges.

Mojica and Garcia will remain in custody, as Young and Smith notify the appropriate consulate. Homeland Security has filed detainers against both men.

Harr and Assistant U.S. Attorney Wayne Taylor declined to discuss the case, and deferred questions to U.S. Attorney William Killian.

Killian said he could not discuss cases currently under litigation, but offered background on the drug trafficking problem in East Tennessee.

He said Atlanta is the central 'hub' for illegal drug activity in the Southeast. It spider-webs out from there. Charlotte, Winston-Salem, and Nashville are smaller hubs, Killian said.

East Tennessee falls one tier below them. It's an attractive place for Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs) because I-26, I-40, I-75, and I-81 give them access to most of the eastern United States.

"I can say generally, over the last several years, there have been connections to various drug cartels in Mexico and South America with ultimate ties in East Tennessee," Killian said.

A local undercover drug agent, who did not want to be identified, said new Travel Safety Administration regulations make it hard for DTOs to ship their product through the air.

"All of this stuff is on the interstate," the agent said. "People think we're small-time here in Appalachia, but these larger DTOs are shipping drugs through our area."

This year, the agent tied drugs in East Tennessee to two Mexican drug cartels -- The Sinaloa Cartel (run by Forbes billionaire Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman), and the Beltran-Leyva Cartel.

These are large, well-funded, and violent DTOs that use MS-13 gang members as street-level enforcers and distributors, the agent said.

The "Case of 36" is one of at least three major drug trafficking investigations in the past five years. For more, click the play icon above for a video report.

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