A traffic stop in South Dakota last week interrupted the cross-country shipment of more than 90 pounds of methamphetamine headed for Eagan, a discovery that led to federal charges this week against three men after the driver agreed to cooperate with authorities.
And in a separate case made public this week, federal authorities said the former owner of a Lake Street soccer store was running the Minnesota operation of a Mexican cartel and distributing large quantities of meth and cocaine. A multiyear probe into drug trafficking by "multifaceted and interrelated organizations" led to criminal drug conspiracy charges against Edgar Martinez-Sanchez, aka Compa or Compita, and at least two of his couriers.
Taken together, the cases underscore the persistent reach of Mexican cartels into Minnesota, where they continue to dispatch alleged associates to distribute large volumes of meth and cocaine around the state.
The charges stem from separate investigations by Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and involve seizures of hundreds of pounds of drugs and bundles of cash wrapped and coated at times with "mustard and other unknown substances," according to documents filed in federal court.
"Minnesota is unique in that we're both a destination market and a transit market to other regions," said Paul Kunze, assistant special agent in charge for HSI in St. Paul. In addition to selling drugs for consumption here, he said, cartels "are also using the region as a transportation point for drugs moving up into Canada and further east in the United States."
Martinez was arrested Tuesday after being indicted alongside Roberto Galicia-Maceda, allegedly a Richfield courier for his organization, according to charges. Both men are Mexican citizens living illegally in the United States, according to an HSI agent's sworn affidavit.
Martinez' attorney, Arthur Martinez (no relation), said his client would plead not guilty at his scheduled arraignment Friday in federal court in Minneapolis. He said Edgar Martinez has since closed his soccer store and was working as a delivery driver and for an office-cleaning business when arrested.
"He had two legitimate jobs — nothing like he's accused of," the attorney said.
Soon after their arrests, another associate, Eliel Garcia, was charged federally with conspiring to distribute meth and cocaine since 2014, when he was first found with 14 kilograms of cocaine hidden in his car as he drove from Phoenix to Chicago.
HSI agents had tracked Martinez since April 2016 as he allegedly directed an unnamed cartel's Minnesota branch, which included family members and other still-unidentified associates.
After conducting hundreds of hours of surveillance and controlled drug purchases from Martinez' organization, agents seized roughly 35 pounds of meth, two pounds of cocaine, a handgun and currency. Agents seized the meth from a co-defendant they later flipped to informant after a meetup in a St. Paul restaurant parking lot late last year.
A day after a federal grand jury returned a sealed nine-count indictment against Martinez and Galicia, Iowa State Patrol troopers retrieved from Galicia's car $391,050 in bundles that were wrapped in plastic and dryer sheets and greased before being completely encased again in black electrical tape. Searches of the men's homes around the Twin Cities this week turned up another $127,000, 10 pounds of meth and five kilograms of cocaine stored in a Honda Civic that Galicia stopped using because, agents believe, he suspected he had been followed.
Family is threatened
Three other men were charged Wednesday with conspiring to distribute meth after the South Dakota State Patrol found 92 pounds of it in a car being driven by Abraham Suazo from California to Eagan, where he said he was to deliver it to co-defendant Arturo Juarez-Madrigal.
According to charges, Suazo agreed to wear a recording device and deliver a "substituted sham substance" passed off as meth to his intended destination in Eagan. There, on Feb. 9, agents arrested Suazo, Juarez-Madrigal and Luis Manual Sanchez-Lopez as the three began to unload the fake meth from a hidden compartment in Suazo's car.
Agents searching the Eagan home found nearly 10 more pounds of meth and $118,500 in wrapped bundles "which were coated with mustard and other unknown substances," the complaint said.
The large meth seizures represent an upward trend in the amounts of drugs federal agents say they are seizing, including a state record 140 pounds retrieved last May in Brooklyn Center.
Minnesota has long been both a market for meth and a transshipment point as the drug makes its way to Canada, Chicago or Milwaukee. Federal sentencing data show that nearly 70 percent of federal drug offenders sentenced in Minnesota in 2015 were charged in meth cases — more than twice the national average.
Federal investigators have established links from Mexico's Sinaloa and Beltran-Leyva cartels to Minnesota drug traffickers, maintaining cells believed to report directly to leaders in Mexico or through intermediaries. And the DEA's latest National Drug Threat Assessment says that Mexican cartels are expected to be a "dominant influence" in the U.S. drug market for the near term.
Minnesota's cases also reveal the extreme measures that Mexican cartels can use to intimidate and control their northern employees.
Last month, Dolores Ludmilla Castillo, 40, became the last of three defendants to plead guilty after the May 2016 Brooklyn Park bust. Speaking softly, and through an interpreter, Castillo was asked by a federal prosecutor if anyone had forced her to help spread meth from Mexico into the U.S.
"Well there is a person who forced us, so he wouldn't bother my siblings or parents in Mexico," she said.