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 email@example.com or (813) 226-3386.