COLUMBIA, SC (WIS)- It took state and federal investigators a year to investigate and build a case against 21 people suspected of helping Mexican drug cartels push millions of dollars worth of heroin through South Carolina. Wednesday morning, SLED and the DEA took down the remaining members of the cartel.
Agents call the operation "Black Poppy," referring to the color of the heroin they've seized throughout the year-long operation. Since October 2009, agents seized more than 30 kilograms of heroin. Agents said three separate distribution "cells" were working inside the state from Richland-Lexington Counties, Horry-Georgetown Counties, to the Charleston County area.
The final operation started before dawn Wednesday morning as SLED's SWAT team loaded into a BearCat armored vehicle, headed toward South Congaree. Agents were on the way to arrest a Hispanic man, suspected of working for Mexican cartels, pushing heroin through the Midlands.
It only took the SWAT team just seconds to blind the suspect with a flash grenade, kick the door in, and arrest Jorge Louis Guitterez-Iberria. Guitterez-Iberria was already under state grand jury indictments, according to SLED, awaiting trial for pending drug charges.
"Some of these individuals that will be picked up today have already been indicted by the grand jury," SLED Director Reggie Lloyd said Wednesday morning on the way to arrest the final suspects in "Operation Black Poppy." "Others may be in the wrong place at the wrong time," Lloyd said referring to not knowing who else may be inside the suspects' homes. "Could be guns, drugs, we just really don't know what we're going to see when we get there."
The take down happened at 5:40 a.m. Agents said Guitterez-Iberria tried to make a run out the back door of his South Congaree mobile home, but SWAT members covered the exit, and Guitterez-Iberria laid on the floor, and surrendered. Agents interviewed Guitterez-Iberria, read him his rights, and booked him in to the Lexington County Detention Center where he'll face a circuit court judge for a bond hearing.
The operation targeted what Lloyd calls a "new wave" of criminals, moving East from large cities like Atlanta and the Southwest. The wave is comprised of Mexican cartel runners, working for organized Drug Trafficking Organizations out of Mexico. The FBI's 2010 National Drug Threat Assessment, which compiles drug intelligence reports from across the nation, calls Mexican Drug Cartels the "fastest growing organized crime group" in the nation. The report states, "Mexican DTOs, constitute the greatest drug trafficking threat to the United States."
The FBI report shows evidence of the Mexican drug trade sweeping along the East coast, making allies with established "street gangs," to grow their networks and to move into more rural areas to deal and distribute drugs.
"We keep telling everybody that we've all got to get ahead of this because these guys get really set up here; they're unlike anything I think anybody's seen before in South Carolina," Lloyd said. "They're setting up shop here in increasing numbers…They're moving huge amounts. It's probably one of the largest heroin distribution rings right now," Lloyd said.
Agents estimate the Midlands ring pushed between $5 and $6 million worth of heroine through South Carolina within the past year. The ring stretched in to the Myrtle Beach area, where agents there have already arrested dozens of Mexican cartel members during operation "Black Poppy." But, the cartel's drug dealing isn't in heroin alone, Lloyd said. The cartels are distributing marijuana, and cocaine, sending the profits from the drug ring back to Mexico, according to investigators.
The indictment against the 21 was unsealed Wednesday. The drugs were sealed in balloons, then distributed through the state, according to the indictment. Lloyd said his agents started conducting undercover drug buys last September, then started mapping out the distribution and supply lines.
Investigators watched the Midlands' cartels for a year, tracking their financing and suppliers, according to Lloyd. Finding the suppliers is the only effective way to stop the cartels, "You've got to take out the roots, you just can't cut off the tops," Lloyd said. "It's the only way to ensure these thugs never come back."
Agents have arrested Joshua Griffin, Bobby Burroughs, Kenneth Andrews, Brainen Borchers, Michael Rion Byrd, Edgar Allan Craig, Wendy Annette Craig, Ian Matthew Craven, Jeremy Lewis Gray, Larry Allen Hourihan, Lisa Amanda Londono, Anselmo Villalobos-Alcala, Jorge Louis Guittercz-Iberria, Noel Adan Verdin-Aldama Francisco Guerrero-Flores, Juan Rodolpho Arroyo, Gadiel Garcia De Dios (aka Andres Sandavol), Manuel Hernandez Robles on multiple charges, including conspiracy to traffic and distribute heroin in felony amounts. Agents also charged Peter Turanec in the case, and SLED said he is expected to surrender soon.
If convicted, the mandatory minimum for the charges is 25 years with a maximum sentence of 40 years in state prison.