Macrina Perez hardly cuts an imposing presence.
But federal prosecutors are alleging that the 25-year-old mother of two, with roots in both Minnesota and Mexico, has in her young life managed to lead one of the biggest meth trafficking cells Minnesota has ever seen.
“Ms. Perez is as connected to Mexican drug cartels based on this evidence as anyone I have ever prosecuted, and it’s somewhat remarkable,” Assistant U.S. Attorney David Steinkamp told a judge this month in one of Perez’s first court appearances since being arrested in April at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Drug agents have been investigating the cell at least three years, and a May 2016 takedown of a Brooklyn Center stash house netted a historic 140 pounds of meth found throughout the home. Much of it was packed tightly into plastic quart-sized bags for distribution, but agents also found liquid meth cooling in a freezer and residue left behind in roasting pans in the kitchen.
Perez’s alleged involvement has been kept secret until now. She was charged nearly two years ago in a sealed indictment that relied on cooperation from several informants whose identities are still protected by the government.
“She wasn’t the courier,” Steinkamp said in court this month. “She’s the CEO of this organization. She’s running it.”
But Perez may soon win early release, under GPS monitoring, to await trial after her attorney successfully lobbied against federal detention. Countering prosecutors’ assertions that Perez is a cartel operative, attorney Gary Wolf argued that as a U.S. citizen with family here, she does not pose a flight risk. “She is adamant about fighting this case out,” Wolf said Wednesday.
Authorities hailed the May 2016 raid as the biggest meth seizure in state history. Still the largest bust of a Minnesota residence to date — agents now regularly haul in comparable or bigger seizures on the highways — the case has come to presage a resurgence of pure, cheap Mexican-made meth being pumped into Minnesota for both sale here and shipment to neighboring states. Minnesota officials now describe the state as awash with twin drug crises, between meth and opioids.
Before learning of the alleged role Perez and her husband, who has not been charged, played in supplying wholesale amounts of meth to the Twin Cities metro, investigators tracked a local drug dealer, Nicholas Nelson, to the Brooklyn Center stash house in late 2015 and early 2016. Nelson and a north metro couple who helped manage the stash house — Dolores Ludmilla Castillo and Francisco Silvestre-Martinez — were each indicted in the same case that led to charges against Perez and are now serving federal prison terms after pleading guilty.
According to court records, agents also found $130,000 in cash stored in a safe and a revolver at the home. A DEA officer testified last week that travel documents with Perez’s name were also found, and that confidential sources said Perez supplied the gun to Castillo to protect the house.
Thomas Maloney, the task force officer, said that Perez and Castillo struck up a friendship in 2013 before Perez “cultivated” her to begin taking mailed meth parcels of up to 5 to 10 pounds each. Castillo’s role soon evolved to managing the stash house, where vehicles regularly dropped off 30- to 50-pound shipments. The DEA has described the case as “very complex” and with “large networks of individuals and vehicles.”
At least one of the government’s sources has also been charged, and pleaded guilty before cooperating, Maloney told Perez’s attorney during cross-examination last week. At one point during Perez’s detention hearing, Steinkamp asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Franklin Noel to disregard earlier testimony about Perez providing the gun because that information could reveal one informant’s identity.
“This is a very, very dangerous situation, and I am not overstating it,” he said.
Prosecutors also say Perez left the U.S. in 2014 after being questioned by Rogers police over a meth shipment that she and a 16-year-old girl allegedly tried to pick up from a hotel. Within days, Perez, the girl and Perez’s fiancé allegedly fled to Mexico, Maloney testified. Hotel staff also said Silvestre-Martinez picked up a similar package delivered to the hotel a week earlier.
Perez may soon be released to await trial while under GPS home monitoring, despite pleas from the government that she could escape prosecution “given her connection to the higher levels here.”
“I submit to you that we will never see her again if you release her, even to a halfway house,” Steinkamp said.
Steinkamp argued that Perez’s “youth, her appearance belie the fact that she was extraordinarily involved in this large-scale drug trafficking organization.” The amount, and purity, of meth Perez is accused of supplying will carry the possibility of decades in prison, potentially a life sentence, he said.
Wolf said Perez was arrested during one of her frequent trips across the border to shop for her family. No drugs, guns or cash were inside her car at the time of her arrest, he said. The night before Perez’s latest hearing, Wolf said, he was handed a stack of “filthy, dirty, crinkled up money” from relatives for his services.
“If she’s involved, she’s going to be the flea on the tail of the dog, not Dr. Evil,” Wolf said.