Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

A freightload of cocaine and bundles of drug money are confiscated in Hillsborough raid

The haul of cocaine, weapons and bags of cash is displayed at the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office on Thursday.


The haul of cocaine, weapons and bags of cash is displayed at the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office on Thursday.

An international smuggling ring that brought massive amounts of cocaine into Hills­borough County every week was shut down Wednesday, authorities say, netting five suspects, piles of money totaling almost $4 million, a cache of weapons and 400 pounds of the drug.

Smugglers moved the drugs from Colombia and other parts of South America, cloaking their scent with cayenne pepper before the Mexican border and hiding the packages in spare tires on interstate car-carrier trucks, said Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee. Drivers made the run at least three times a week, sending the profits back to Texas.

Altogether, deputies confiscated nearly $4 million in currency from a Plant City stash house, two other homes and a smuggling truck. They also took possession of five SKS assault rifles, three cars and about 180 kilograms of cocaine with an estimated value of $4.8 million, deputies said.

"The economy may be bad elsewhere," Gee said, standing in front of a table stacked with bricks of cocaine and bags of cash. "But obviously, in the dope biz, it's flourishing."

Five suspects — Nicolas Sandoval-Rivera, 45, Juan Luis Gonzalez, 32, Victor Navarrete De La Cruz, 24, Irasema Morena-Rojas, 26, and Ricardo Manuel Lopez, 43 — were charged with cocaine trafficking and booked into the Orient Road Jail Thursday. Lopez, Sandoval-Rivera and De La Cruz, whom Gee called the regional ringleader, also face charges of conspiracy to traffic.

Three of the suspects were illegally living in the United States, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. Gonzalez had been deported once before.

"The border is still very porous," Gee said. "We deport them and they come right back across."

Deputies made the bust after four months of surveillance. Other details, like possible connections to a larger organization and the amount of law enforcement personnel involved, won't be disclosed until the investigation ends, Gee said.

The investigation involved Hillsborough deputies, Tampa police and federal agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Drug trafficking, even at this scale, is nothing new in Hillsborough County, said Tampa police Lt. Kenny Morman. Many of the area's largest busts have centered at the Port of Tampa, used by syndicates as a distribution outlet for expansive sales.

"Tampa's not traditionally a source city for narcotics," Morman said. "This is the biggest single impact" in decades.

This week's confiscation is dwarfed, however, by a 1988 bust led by "Operation Woodpecker," in which Pinellas deputies, St. Petersburg police and Drug Enforcement Administration agents uncovered nearly 8,000 pounds of cocaine in a Tarpon Springs warehouse. Businessman Michael "Jungle Mike" Tsalickis had been importing the drugs from Colombia on a freighter called the Amazon Sky.

A U.S. customs agent said after the bust, "Unfortunately for you, Tampa appears to have reached Miami proportions."

Drew Harwell can be reached at or (813) 226-3386.

>> The record is …

The largest cocaine seizure in the Tampa Bay area was nearly 8,000 pounds painstakingly hidden inside 700 hollowed-out cedar boards brought from South America to a warehouse in Tarpon Springs in 1988. The warehouse owner, Mike Tsalickis, was sentenced to 27 years in prison. Read about the downfall of this man known as Jungle Mike at

A freightload of cocaine and bundles of drug money are confiscated in Hillsborough raid 04/23/09 [Last modified: Friday, April 24, 2009 10:44am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Bowen: Humanitarian Roy Hardy raised hope, diminished hunger


    The lines on Roy Hardy's resume are simple: retailer, rancher, amateur barbecue chef, recreational fisherman.

     Philanthropist Roy Hardy, shown here in 2007, stirs up the baked beans at a Kiwanis club charity fish fry. Mr. Hardy died Sept. 19 at the age of 93.

  2. Halloween Horror Nights: 'The Shining,' 'Saw' and more things to give you nightmares at Universal Orlando


    The 27th year of Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights will scare the pants off you -- in the best possible way.

    The scare zone inspired by horror flick Trick r' Treat is one of the most beautiful at this year's Halloween Horror Nights 27.
  3. 10th resident from sweltering Hollywood nursing home dies

    Public Safety

    A 10th person from the Hollywood nursing home that turned into a deadly hothouse after the facility lost power following Hurricane Irma has died, Hollywood police said.

    The Rehabilitation Center of Hollywood Hills, 1200 N. 35th Ave. [EMILHY MICHOT | Miami Herald]
  4. Feeling mental fatigue after Hurricane Irma and other disasters? It's real.


    TAMPA — Blackness. Eyes closed or open, the same.

    A Tampa Bay Times reporter in a sensory deprivation tank used for floating therapy at Sacred Floats & Gems Co. located at 6719 N Nebraska Avenue, in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday, September 19, 2017. Floating therapy relaxes people because they experience a sense of zero gravity when they are inside the tank, which contains 150 gallons of water and 1000 pounds of medical grade Epsom salt. ALESSANDRA DA PRA  |   Times
  5. Trump vows more sanctions on North Korea


    President Donald Trump vowed Thursday to impose more sanctions on North Korea as he prepared to meet with his counterparts from Japan and South Korea to seek a common strategy in confronting the isolated nuclear-armed state.

    U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly, at U.N. headquarters on Sept. 19, 2017. North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017 in New York described as "the sound of a dog barking" Trump's threat to destroy his country. [Associated Press]