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Feds Bust Drug Network in 14 Cities

August 17, 1999

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Federal agents arrested scores of people and seized drugs and money in 14 cities Tuesday in an effort to break up what the FBI called one of the top 20 drug distribution networks in the country.

Agents had warrants to arrest 100 people and search more than 70 sites in an operation against a group alleged to import tons of cocaine and marijuana across the Southwest border and distribute it in the East and Midwest.

The target of the multiagency Operation Southwest Express was the drug trafficking organization of Omar Rocha Soto, arrested with his wife, Adriana Espinoza, early Tuesday as they left their $649,000 home in a San Diego suburb. ``He was definitely on his way to being a big-big-time trafficker,″ said Errol Chavez, chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s San Diego office.

Also arrested Tuesday were three brothers who agents said coordinated transportation for the group from their El Paso, Texas, base. Daniel, Raul and Angel Sotello-Lopez were arrested in El Paso.

They and others arrested were charged with drug trafficking, money laundering and conspiracy. The trafficking charges alone can carry 20-year prison terms.

During the yearlong investigation, agents seized 4,158 pounds of marijuana, 2,727 kilograms of cocaine and more than $1.15 million in cash.

Seized Tuesday were 14 more kilograms of cocaine, two Ferrari autos, a Land Rover and seven weapons, including an AK-47 assault rifle, Assistant FBI Director Thomas Pickard said. By late Tuesday afternoon, 77 arrests had been made, and more than 20 others were expected, the FBI said.

``This investigation has resulted in a major disruption of the flow of drugs from the Southwest border throughout the United States,″ said FBI Director Louis Freeh.

Pickard said the raids disrupted ``a major drug trafficking organization from its distribution system to its retail sales.″ He ranked the group among ``the top 20″ drug trafficking networks in the country.

The group brought drugs into San Diego and El Paso and shipped them to friends and associates in Chicago in covert compartments of cars, tractor-trailers and by piggyback trains that haul trailers, Pickard said. From Chicago, the drugs were sent on to Cleveland, New York and Boston and then to Nashville, Tenn., and Atlanta. He said the drugs originated in Mexico, South America and Southeast Asia.

``This organization that was disrupted today embraced the American capitalist idea and would sell any type of drug for a profit,″ Pickard said. ``It did not discriminate in its dealings with any other drug organizations. For example, they sold to Dominicans, blacks, Middle Easterners and any other organized crime group throughout the United States.″

The investigation was conducted by the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Justice Department, Customs Service, Internal Revenue Service and Immigration and Naturalization Service. More than 50 state and local police agencies also took part.

``The most important element was working together to pool our intelligence,″ said Joseph Keefe, DEA’s chief of special operations. ``Everybody’s got a piece of information down to the local police level. It’s just a matter of getting everybody to work together on it.″

Pickard said agents used pen registers, to record telephone numbers dialed by the gang, and court-approved wiretaps including a roving wiretap on one individual who used 12 different phones in one month.

The FBI would not say where all of the arrests or seizures on Tuesday occurred. But, including previous law enforement activities, arrests or seizures in the operation have occurred in Houston; Lufkin, Texas; Chicago; La Salle, Ill.; Cleveland; Dayton, Ohio; Allentown, Pa.; New York; Albany, N.Y.; Boston; Nashville; and Atlanta, the bureau said.

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