A tip to St. Paul police led to the breakup of a major drug ring, one with buyers named "Scarface," "Fish" and "Al Bundy" paying thousands in cash for methamphetamine shipped from Mexico and sold mainly in the Hmong community, authorities said Friday.

Twenty people were charged this week by the Hennepin County attorney's office after an eight-month investigation in which federal and local law officers monitored phone calls and text messages of two suspects, Koua (Jimmy) Yang, 32, of Minneapolis, and Daniel Samorano, 33, of Brooklyn Park, according to court records.

Authorities recovered 17 pounds of meth worth more than $500,000, along with four guns. Two of those accused of supplying the meth, Felix (Short) Lopez-Martinez, 23, of Cottage Grove and Pedro (Peli) Ayala-Leyva, 37, of Brooklyn Park, were said by an informant to be associates of the La Familia Michoacana drug cartel, according to court records. Thirteen of those charged are in custody so far.

"This is not a small-scale investigation," said St. Paul Police Chief Tom Smith, who along with County Attorney Mike Freeman, Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan and FBI special agent-in-charge Don Oswald announced the arrests Friday at Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis.

The agencies cooperated in the investigation under the auspices of the Safe Streets Task Force, a group established by the FBI to take on major criminal organizations.

The bust was a major score for the Safe Streets Task Force, which was created in the vacuum left after the collapse of the scandal-ridden Metro Gang Strike Force, and which had come under criticism in two state reports issued last fall for lack of collaboration, organization and monitoring.

The investigation continues and could spread to other states, said Freeman.

The investigation tracked the methamphetamine source as far back as California, but it's believed that much of it comes from Mexico, where drug manufacturers can still access large amounts of pseudoephedrine or ephedrine, the drug's main ingredient. Local manufacturers of meth have struggled to find large quantities of the drug since laws adopted a decade ago tightened the supply.

As the investigation grew over the past few months, authorities watched and listened in on Yang. According to the charges: Yang, who kept a handgun loaded with armor-piercing bullets, met with buyers, sometimes at his house, but other times in public. He made one deal in the deli section of the Brooklyn Park Festival Foods.

Using street slang for the drugs, Yang's phone calls and text messages were rife with offers to sell "eightballs" of meth to small buyers on up to a pound to a man who was later arrested in Rogers, in the northwest metro.

Some of the deals were made with confidential informants and an undercover police officer, and at one point, a woman identified in court records as Yang's mother warned him that he was being watched.

"They're going to arrest you soon, my son," she warned, after learning from Yang's brother that a camera had been set up to watch his house.

Yang, whose conversation was being recorded, told his mother to stop lecturing him.

The investigation culminated in search warrants, raids and arrests starting about two weeks ago.

In mid-February, Samorano had driven back to Minnesota from California when he was pulled over by the State Patrol in Lakeville, according to court records. Police found 9 pounds of methamphetamine in a hidden compartment of his Subaru Outback. Investigators said they found more cars with elaborate hidden compartments designed to hide meth.

Search warrants at five houses found guns, drugs and cash as authorities swooped in on dealers and buyers connected to Yang.

He was pulled over and arrested Wednesday.

Matt McKinney • 612-217-1747