CA: 17 Charged in Scheme to Smuggle Fentanyl and Other Drugs Hidden Inside Fire Extinguishers Across U.S.-Mexico Border

An arraignment is scheduled this afternoon for the final defendant arrested on a federal grand jury indictment that alleges a scheme to smuggle fentanyl, methamphetamine and heroin from Mexico into the United States – narcotics that allegedly were packed into fire extinguishers and concealed in scrap metal loads.

The drug trafficking organization used semi-trucks to import fire extinguishers filled with drugs across the United States-Mexico border, according to court documents. During the two-year investigation, called Operation “Smoke Jumpers,” authorities made 13 seizures that yielded approximately 680,992 fentanyl pills, 3 kilograms of fentanyl powder, 17 kilograms of heroin, and 10,418 pills containing methamphetamine.

Nine defendants were arrested during law enforcement operations that began on February 8 and continued through Monday. One defendant was already in state custody. Seven additional defendants are fugitives believed to be in Mexico.

“These defendants used a sophisticated network to smuggle immense amounts of fentanyl into our country,” said United State Attorney Martin Estrada. “We know that every fentanyl pill can kill, but these defendants did not care about the widespread destruction they were causing. Our office will continue to work intelligently and aggressively to bring international drug-trafficking organizations to justice.”

“Law enforcement continues to meet the challenges presented by drug trafficking organizations whose members constantly find novel ways to hide the poison they’re importing from Mexico to U.S. towns and cities,” said Amir Ehsaei, the Acting Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office. “The FBI and our partners on the Strike Force are seeking seven fugitives in this case and ask that anyone with information as to their whereabouts contact the FBI.”

The 15-count indictment unsealed on February 8 charges various defendants in drug trafficking counts and a money laundering conspiracy. The nine defendants who were arrested are:

  • Oscar Ahumada Leyva, 43, of Mexico;
  • Miguel Antonio Rabago Valenzuela, 42, of Mexico;
  • Gustavo Rivero Rodriguez, 39, of Mexico;
  • Carlos Espinoza, 38, of Alhambra;
  • Erick Roque Angeles, 39, of Fontana;
  • David Sanchez Balderas, 26, of Denver;
  • Fernando Salgado, 36, of Riverside;
  • Rocio Guadalupe Acevedo Tonche, 32, of Ontario; and
  • Efren Quibrera Espinoza, 29, of Cudahy.

Six of the defendants were taken into custody in the Los Angeles and Inland Empire regions. Five of those defendants have been arraigned, entered not guilty pleas, and ordered to stand trial on April 2. Erick Roque Angeles is scheduled to be arraigned in United States District Court in Los Angeles later today. A tenth defendant – Toniel Baez-Duarte, 33, of Apple Valley – was already in state custody.

According to a warrant to search a phone seized when Carlos Espinoza was arrested last week, the investigation focused on Carin Trucking, a San Diego-based outfit owned by Leyva that operated at least six semi-trucks that regularly entered the United States from Mexico to deliver suspected narcotics to the Los Angeles area. The drugs, including counterfeit pills containing fentanyl, were concealed in fire extinguishers initially disguised as scrap metal and later in extinguishers that appeared legitimate, according to the search warrant filed Monday.

“Investigators have observed multiple drug transactions involving truck drivers and their semi-trucks,” according to the affidavit in support of the search warrant. “The truck driver would drive into the United States from Mexico, and cross the border usually carrying a load of scrap metal, and concealed inside will be a scrap metal fire extinguisher containing drugs. The truck driver would then make his way up to Los Angeles, to meet a courier, who would pick up the drug packed fire extinguishers for further distribution.”

An indictment contains allegations that a defendant has committed a crime. Every defendant is presumed to be innocent until and unless proven guilty in court.

The indictment alleges two narcotics conspiracies and 12 drug possession offenses, each of which carry a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in federal prison and a potential life sentence. Count 15, which alleges a money laundering conspiracy, carries a statutory maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

Operation Smoke Jumpers was led by the FBI Los Angeles Strike Force, which is part of an Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces (OCDETF) Strike Force Initiative and provides for the establishment of permanent multi-agency task force teams that work side-by-side in the same location. This co-located model enables agents from different agencies to collaborate on intelligence-driven, multi-jurisdictional operations to disrupt and dismantle the most significant drug traffickers, money launderers, gangs, and transnational criminal organizations.

In addition to the FBI, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the South Gate Police Department, IRS Criminal Investigation, and Homeland Security Investigations participated in the investigation.

The Drug Enforcement Administration, the California Highway Patrol, the Pasadena Police Department, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department’s Inland Regional Narcotic Enforcement Team, the Alhambra Police Department, the Rialto Police Department, and the Fontana Police Department provided substantial assistance.

Assistant United States Attorneys Christopher C. Kendall and Jehan Pernas of the International Narcotics, Money Laundering, and Racketeering Section are prosecuting this case.

Tags: Opioid Crisis

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