A drug-trafficking operation run out of a Spring Lake Park auto repair shop was busted in a series of raids Wednesday morning.
In early morning raids, authorities converged with search warrants on residences in Minnesota, California and Illinois, made arrests and seized evidence.
Twelve people, including six from Minnesota, have been indicted on a charge of conspiring to distribute methamphetamine and marijuana in Minnesota, U.S. Attorney Andy Luger announced.
Four defendants made their initial appearances in U.S. District Court in St. Paul Wednesday, two appeared in federal court in Fresno, Calif., and one appeared in Chicago, Ill. Others are expected to make court appearances in the next day or two, but it appears that not all of the 12 men have been arrested.
J. Michael Netherland, special agent in charge of Homeland Security investigations, described the group as "a dangerous drug-trafficking organization responsible for flooding the Twin Cities with methamphetamine."
Luger said the organization's Minnesota branch was led by Eduardo Penaloza-Romero, who operated out of an automotive repair business called Auto Laser in Spring Lake Park. The shop was used to store and transfer methamphetamine and was a meeting place to collect drug money, authorities allege.
The group's drug trafficking has been taking place since at least August 2011, authorities said.
According to an affidavit by Travis Hamblen, a Homeland Security investigator, unsealed Wednesday, authorities used a paid confidential informant who gathered information by recording meetings and phone calls and also made controlled purchases of drugs. An undercover police officer with extensive narcotics investigative experience was also brought in to make purchases.
U.S. District Judge Joan Ericksen also authorized the use of wiretaps on six telephone numbers
Eleuterio Izazaga-Pascacio was one of the group's ringleaders, the U.S. attorney's office said in a news release. He supplied Penaloza-Romero with meth, and on at least one occasion discussed in coded language the sale of two pounds of narcotics for $10,000 each.
Penaloza-Romero, in turn, was supposed to sell the meth for $12,500 per pound and send the profits to Izazaga-Pascacio's brother. On Aug. 5, law enforcement officers stopped a vehicle traveling from California to the Auto Laser and confiscated 10 pounds of meth, according to documents.
Other members of the Penaloza-Romero organization transported or sold the meth or laundered the proceeds, according to the indictment.
Several of the coded discussions are included in Hamblen's affidavit. A trafficker used the term "cold ones," which Hamblen said referred to methamphetamine, "branch" to refer to marijuana, and "pants" to refer to cocaine. Authorities apparently witnessed the alleged traffickers carrying envelopes believed to contain cash and transferring boxes containing drugs.
The addresses searched Wednesday included the auto repair shop at 8301 Sunset Rd. NE., an apartment at 8104 Pleasant View Dr. NE. in Spring Lake Park belonging to Penaloza-Romero, another apartment at 375 83rd Av. NE. in Spring Lake Park, and an address at 645 N. Farrington St. in St. Paul
Between August 2011 and Sept. 23, 2014, authorities seized about $600,000 in cash from the group, 47 pounds of meth and a handgun, in addition to the marijuana.
Law enforcement conducted nine purchases of controlled substances from associates of the Penaloza group, the U.S. attorney's office said.
In a statement, Luger said that "drug traffickers will not find a safe haven in Minnesota" and credited both federal and local law enforcement agencies for building the criminal case against the group.
Among the agencies involved in the three-year investigation were Homeland Security, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Minneapolis and St. Paul police departments, operating under the auspices of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force.
Charged in the indictment were Eleuterio Izazaga-Pascacio, 48, of Fresno; Imer Penaloza-Pineda, 36, of Zihuatanejo, Mexico; Eduardo Penaloza-Romero, 24, of Spring Lake Park; Gerrardo Sanchez, 28, of Chicago; Felix Velazquez-Garay, 41, of St. Paul; Arnaldo Enrique Almendarez, 40, of St. Paul; Aundray Lindsay, 36, of St. Paul; Cesar Daniel Molina-Carranza, 31, of St. Paul; Magedaleno Perez-Arenas, 36, of St. Paul; Ramon Espinosa-Cardenas of Fresno; Alfredo Basurto-Herrera, 26, of Fresno; and Jesus Sotelo-Valdovinos, 40, of Fresno.