Cartel takes a hit in Twin Cities drug bust

  • Article by: JAMES WALSH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 26, 2009 - 7:53 AM

Dozens of residents arrested in nationwide meth, coke crackdown.

In what law enforcement officials are calling a major blow to Mexican drug cartel operations in the Twin Cities, a coordinated criminal takedown Wednesday resulted in 27 arrests and the seizure of more than 4 pounds of methamphetamine, 6 pounds of cocaine, a pound of marijuana, seven guns, 10 vehicles and approximately $33,000 in U.S. currency.

The arrests and indictments are part of a 21-month national and international investigation dubbed Operation Xcellerator, which targeted violent drug distribution cells that are allegedly responsible for transporting cocaine and methamphetamine to the area from Mexico and Canada. Drug smugglers used personal cars, commercial bus lines, commercial airlines and private and commercial trucks to bring drugs into the Twin Cities, Drug Enforcement Administration officials said.

Joanna Zoltay, a spokeswoman for the Chicago DEA office, said the number of people arrested locally and the quantity of drugs seized make this case one of the Twin Cities' most extensive drug enforcement operations. More arrests are possible, she said.

After the arrests Wednesday, the U.S. attorney's office announced that indictments involving 36 suspects have been unsealed. Of the 36 indictments made public, 21 people were charged last week and 15 were charged in December.

Investigators allege that the drug distribution cells raked in an estimated $3.5 million per month selling crack cocaine and methamphetamine in the Twin Cities area. Officials also say drug dealers were sending large amounts of that cash back across the U.S./Mexican border.

In addition to the arrests, investigators on Wednesday searched 13 locations across the Twin Cities.

Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher confirmed that one of his investigators has been working with the DEA task force for months, and another 30 deputies helped execute eight searches -- seven in St. Paul and one in Little Canada -- on Wednesday.

"Drug smuggling into the metro area by the Mexican drug cartels has been growing dramatically over the years," Fletcher said. "This was a major investigation by the DEA, which involved extensive investigative time. This will have a significant impact on the Mexican drug trade here."

Lt. Marie Przynski, head of the Minneapolis Police Department's narcotics unit, said the indictments will severely dent meth sales in the metro area. She said 15 of the 27 people were arrested in Minneapolis.

She described the group as a significant drug trafficking organization.

Initially, Minneapolis was working on one case and St. Paul had two cases involving the group. Przynski said it didn't become apparent until further in the investigation that their cases overlapped.

The local investigation ultimately involved the DEA, the Ramsey and Hennepin County sheriffs' offices, Minneapolis and St. Paul police, as well as the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, the Northwest Metro Drug Task Force and the Sherburne County Sheriff's Office.

The 36 suspects whose indictments were unsealed Wednesday are expected to make a first appearance in U.S. District Court today. According to the U.S. Attorney, 17 of those indicted live in St. Paul, two live in Minneapolis, and one each live in Apple Valley, White Bear Lake, Willmar, Inver Grove Heights, Shakopee, Vadnais Heights, Roseville, Bloomington, Richfield, Oakdale, Woodbury and Yakima, Wash. The addresses for five others are unknown.

"It is a proud day for the law enforcement partners in Minnesota, who worked tirelessly to dismantle the targeted drug operations within the Twin Cities, "Gary Olenkiewicz, special agent in charge of the DEA's Chicago Field Division, which oversees Minnesota, said in a statement released today. "DEA and its partners are committed to ensuring that Minnesotans have a safe place to raise their families -- safe from the harmful effects of drugs on our youth and safe from the violence that so often accompanies those who supply, transport and distribute drugs."

Nationally, Operation Xcellerator has seized $59.1 million in U.S. currency, more than 12,000 kilograms of cocaine, more than 16,000 pounds of marijuana, more than 1,200 pounds of methamphetamine, approximately 1.3 million pills of Ecstasy and more than 8 kilograms of heroin.

In addition, investigators have seized more than $6.5 million in other assets, 149 vehicles, three aircraft, three maritime vessels and 169 weapons.

The national operation targeted multiple violent drug networks, the DEA said, including the Sinaloa Cartel, operating in Mexico, the U.S. and Canada.

Staff writer David Chanen contributed to this report. James Walsh • 612-673-7428

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