NOV 14 (SAN DIEGO) – In summer of 2010, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) Narcotics Task Force (NTF) Team 9 was conducting routine aerial surveillance when they happened to spot a remote marijuana farm in Julian. Agents cut down the massive crop with machetes, arrested four crop tenders and found lots of items left behind – illegal pesticides, a makeshift kitchen, sleeping bags, candles and crosses, and lots of trash. They seized cell phones that turned out to be a critical catalyst for the investigation. Two years later, Operation Mountain High morphed into a complex and groundbreaking case involving extensive wiretaps, video cameras mounted in the middle of nowhere and arrests of elusive higher-level marijuana traffickers who manage large-scale grows on public lands.
Investigators were able to use the cell phones to connect the players through wiretaps and other electronic surveillance techniques – moves that took the case far beyond the typical chance discovery of a single outdoor grow and the arrests of low level grow workers. Fourteen phone lines were tapped for almost six months, producing hundreds of hours of intercepted conversations that were key to building the case.
On Tuesday November 13th, DEA and its partners arrested six of 10 people charged. All are believed to be mid to high level managers in the drug trafficking organization. Agents searched 15 locations associated with the organization in El Cajon, Lakeside and Valley Center in San Diego County and Temecula, Perris and Hemet in Riverside County. They seized 12 firearms, $237,000 in cash and 13 vehicles and 300 pounds of processed marijuana, ready for sale, with a street value of more than $300,000. In the two-year probe they seized more than 79,000 marijuana plants during raids of eight farms in Julian, Valley Center, Pala, Palomar Mountain, Cleveland National Forest and Riverside.
“This investigation represents one of the most comprehensive investigations ever undertaken in this county specifically targeting outdoor marijuana cultivation,” said William Sherman, Acting Special Agent in Charge DEA San Diego division, the lead agency on the investigation. “This was a sophisticated group of traffickers who had no regard for California’s federal and state public lands, and the damage that was done to these areas in their quest to make money. DEA/NTF and our law enforcement partners hit this organization at every level and have succeeded in putting them out of business for good.”
Officials believe the traffickers are part of a much larger criminal operation based in Mexico. According to court documents, the drug trafficking operation used undocumented workers smuggled into the U.S. to tend to the marijuana crops. The organization manufactured and distributed marijuana in locations throughout southern and central California, and had links to other marijuana grows in Northern California, Utah and Idaho.
The defendants are scheduled for arraignment Nov. 14 in federal court in San Diego at 1:30 p.m. before U.S. Magistrate Judge Barbara L. Major. The charges are only allegations, and the defendants are presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
The DEA San Diego Field Division’s Narcotics Task Force (NTF) is large multi-agency Task Force, consisting of approximately 100 sworn law enforcement agents and officers for 18 different local, state and federal agencies. The mission of the San Diego Narcotics Task Force is to dismantle the most significant mid to high level organizations and bring to justice the organizations’ principle members involved in narcotics trafficking, growing, manufacturing and money laundering in Southern California.
Other agencies involved in the case are San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, the Bureau of Land Management, the San Diego Police Department and the Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigations, United States Border Patrol, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department and the U.S. Forest Service.
An indictment or a complaint is not evidence that the defendants committed the crimes charged. The defendants are presumed innocent until the Government meets its burden in court of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Case No. 12mj4116
Daniel Malaquias-Mendoza, 33 Perris, CA IN CUSTODY
Antioco Sotelo-Ayala, 41, Hemet, CA FUGITIVE
Jose Villa-Garcia, 43, Perris, CA IN CUSTODY
Francisco Villasenor-Ortiz, 31, Perris, CA IN CUSTODY
Miguel Mendoza-Mendoza, 26, Perris, CA IN CUSTODY
Juventino Artemio-Sotelo, 43, Hemet, CA FUGITIVE
John Philip Lombardo, 57, Lakeside, CA IN CUSTODY
Adrian Chavez-Garduno, 27, Perris, CA FUGITIVE
David Chavez-Garduno, 23, Temecula, CA FUGITIVE
Roberto Valencia-Martinez, 37, Perris, CA IN CUSTODY
SUMMARY OF CHARGES
Title 21, United States Code, Section 846 and 841(a)(1) B Conspiracy to Manufacture Marijuana
If convicted, the defendants face a penalty of 10 years to life