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GetSmart About Drugs - A DEA Resource for Parents

News Release
June 15, 2000


WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Culminating a one year, nationwide investigation, federal, state, and local law enforcement agents today arrested nearly 200 individuals in 12 cities in connection with a Mexican-based organization that imports and distributes heroin in the United States, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced today.

The investigation, known as "Operation Tar Pit," was conducted exclusively within the United States and targeted a heroin trafficking organization based in Nayarit, Mexico. Transportation and distribution cells of the Nayarit organization had been established in cities across the United States, including: San Diego, Los Angeles, and Bakersfield, Calif; Chicago, Ill.; Reno and Las Vegas, Nev.; Salt Lake City, Utah; Nashville, Tenn.; Corpus Christi, Texas; Detroit, Mich; Atlanta, Ga.; Denver, Colo.; Phoenix, Ariz.; Honolulu, Hawaii; Portland, Ore.; Albuquerque, N.M.; Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio; Anchorage, Alaska; Pittsburgh, Pa.; and Steubenville, Ohio; as well as in West Virginia, Minnesota, Alabama, Kentucky, New Jersey, and Maui, Hawaii.

"This organization operated in a dangerously efficient manner," said Attorney General Janet Reno. "Not only did this group exhibit disregard for the law, but their peddling of this powerful and addictive drug showed an even greater disregard for human life."

Operation Tar Pit, which was carried out in cooperation with the Justice Department's Criminal Division and the U.S. Attorney's offices, grew out of a DEA San Diego investigation that began in June 1998. The San Diego investigation revealed that a trafficking organization that was the source of much of the high purity black tar heroin being trafficked in the San Diego area and had established distribution cells in several other cities. Investigators also determined that the organization targeted by San Diego had previously been the subject of a joint DEA/FBI investigation in New Mexico in 1998.

The investigation was linked to numerous heroin overdose deaths in the small town of Chimayo, New Mexico, located approximately 90 miles north of Albuquerque. Between 1995 and 1998, approximately 85 deaths in Chimayo were attributed to high-purity, black tar heroin. In October 1999, DEA and FBI agents in Albuquerque arrested approximately 33 individuals in connection with this investigation. On March 22, 2000, the DEA in Albuquerque subsequently arrested an additional 17 individuals connected to the Chimayo cell.

"Chimayo proved to be only a single cell - the tip of the iceberg - in the nationwide heroin trafficking network managed by the organization," said DEA Administrator Donnie R. Marshall. "This is the first time we've seen a criminal drug trafficking organization go coast-to-coast, also hitting Alaska and Hawaii, with heroin at 60 to 84 percent purity levels. Very simply, shoot it and you're risking death. The lower price and higher purity of this heroin being distributed by the organization not only allowed the organization to expand its market virtually at will but also spread crime and violence to new areas across the country."

Since October 1999, agents have seized 41 pounds of heroin, with a street value of millions of dollars. The heroin ranged in purity from 60 to 84 percent, even in smaller (i.e., gram quantity) seizures. The high purity level is believed to be responsible for the overdose deaths in Chimayo, New Mexico, as well as more recent overdose deaths in several other cities.

FBI Director Louis J. Freeh said, "This operation pushed devastation on our streets. Purity levels like this are a grim reminder of the drug menace we must confront at every level, in every location. Only through a massively coordinated effort do we see this kind of success against a very violent but very sophisticated drug enterprise."

The arrests were made early Thursday by agents of the DEA, FBI, and state and local law enforcement in San Diego, Los Angeles, Denver, Phoenix, Honolulu, Maui, Portland, Albuquerque, Cleveland, Columbus, Steubenville, Ohio, and Corpus Christi, Tex. Thus far, no major currency seizures have been made; however, significant assets that may be subject to judicial forfeiture have been identified. Although the investigation has, thus far, been confined to the U.S. side of the border, DEA and FBI hope to provide Mexican officials with evidence and leads that will assist them in identifying, investigating, and prosecuting other members of the organization located in Mexico.

"The organization demonstrated an ability to adapt to increased pressure from law enforcement," according to Attorney General Reno. "Despite substantial seizures of drugs and numerous arrests of cell members, the activities of the organization continued virtually unabated for several years. The success of Operation Tar Pit is clearly the result of close cooperation between all of the law enforcement agencies involved."

The investigation was coordinated by the Special Operations Division, a joint Department of Justice, DEA, FBI, U.S. Customs, and Internal Revenue Service program, staffed by attorneys from the Justice Department's Criminal Division and agents and analysts from the participating investigative agencies. Federal indictments and criminal complaints have been obtained by United States Attorneys'Offices in the following districts: Southern District of California (San Diego); Central District of California (Los Angeles); District of Colorado; District of Oregon; District of Hawaii; District of New Mexico; and Northern District of Ohio (Cleveland). The Arizona prosecution is being handled by the Arizona Attorney General's Office.

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