Grubhub had nothing on these guys, who could quickly deliver aluminum foil-wrapped heroin packets around central Ohio as if they were sandwiches.
Heroin users needed only to contact the “dispatcher,” and one or more “fechas” — 1/10th of a gram of heroin wrapped in aluminum foil — were quickly delivered by a courier to a designated meeting spot. The delivery was often made by a Mexican immigrant who was in the country illegally and had fake documentation. Business was good.
So the 13 accused co-conspirators seemed genuinely surprised when they found themselves herded together recently in a federal courtroom in Columbus, charged with running a major heroin trafficking operation between Mexico and central Ohio.
“I don’t think they ever expected the entire organization to be there,” said Sgt. Randy Pohl of the Delaware County sheriff’s office, who heads the Delaware County Drug Task Force. “When they were in the courtroom, looking around at each other, it was an eye-opener.”
That first appearance of 13 defendants in federal court was the culmination of four years of work for a team of local, state and federal investigators. The tenacious effort had finally yielded results: 18 people — 13 in central Ohio and 5 in California — have been indicted on federal charges of conspiracy to distribute heroin, money laundering and manufacturing false identification documents.
Khaalid Walls, spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said: “This was a sophisticated operation that went to great lengths to obscure their activities.”
Pipeline worth millions
It is estimated that the organization raked in millions of dollars facilitating a pipeline of heroin that started in the poppy fields of the Mexican state of Nayarit and ended in packages sold as “coins” on Columbus’ North Side, in surrounding suburbs and in Delaware County.
Most of the profits were wired back home, said Pohl, whose task force also covers Westerville and Dublin. Investigators with the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation and the State Highway Patrol are also on the task force. Federal help came later from ICE, the FBI and the IRS.
Pohl said of the defendants: “We spent a lot of time with these guys. They’re slick.”
Unlike some dealers of heroin, this group made it a practice not to mix in fentanyl, the synthetic painkiller that causes so many overdose deaths, Pohl noted.
“Fentanyl kills your customers,” Pohl said.
The defendants are described as operating in a tight circle of Mexican nationals that was hard to penetrate, Pohl said. Although big money passed through their hands, their lifestyles were low-profile, said Westerville police Detective Scott Dollison. One reason is that half of them are undocumented immigrants who didn’t want to call attention to themselves.
In many ways, they were the antithesis of how drug dealers are portrayed in movies.
“They didn’t drive flashy cars,” Dollison said. All lived in nondescript rental properties.
Even the man identified as the local leader, Diego Castaneda-Garcia, 31, lived in a rented house off Schrock Road on the Northeast Side, Dollison said.
How it worked
It was in 2015 that Dollison received a tip from an informant about the source of heroin flooding into Westerville. Mexicans — most of them from the state of Nayarit — would be recruited to illegally cross the border into the United States to work as runners for the heroin distribution business in central Ohio. Couriers carrying heroin would board commercial flights or cross the country in a car or on a motorcycle.
There were times, though, when Castaneda-Garcia, as the conspiracy leader, would arrange for deliveries of larger packages of heroin to California, authorities allege.
One of the members would act as a dispatcher, sending runners out to meet the customers for transactions in parking lots. Heroin was sold at a rate of 15 fechas, or coins, for $100. The quick, furtive transactions were carried out in the area’s many large parking lots outside grocery stores and big-box stores, said Capt. Kevin Savage of the Delaware County sheriff’s office.
Profits from the heroin sales would then be “laundered” by being sent via wire transfer in increments of just under $1,000 back to the state of Nayarit in Mexico. Money transfer businesses, which often send money to foreign countries, can have thresholds of $1,000 or more that trigger reporting a transaction to federal authorities.
Eventually, investigators were able to track a number of the money shipments, which were transmitted from numerous small stores around Columbus.
Counterfeiting documents for the participants was also a significant component of the conspiracy.
Runners would be supplied with vehicles to rendezvous with customers. The registration and licensing of the vehicles would be done under a false name or the name of another U.S. citizen to avoid detection by law enforcement.
The perfume shop
Julia Martinez-Alvarez, 58, was identified as the organizer of the documents side of the business, which operated out of an apartment in the 2300 block of Clybourne Road on the northeast side of Columbus. She was the point person in supplying all the false identification documents, including Social Security cards, alien registration cards and Ohio identification cards.
Martinez-Alvarez called her business “Chilango’s Perfumes,” and those seeking false documents would use the code word “perfumes” to request her services. Customers would pay $120 for her “full set,” which included a Social Security card and a resident alien card.
Court documents describe a number of the alleged transactions between Martinez-Alvarez and her customers, such as this one:
“I was calling you because I wanted perfume,” a woman says.
Martinez-Alvarez, according to law enforcement, replies: “Of course. To place your order, I need a front photo, with the hair up, no earrings and no glasses. Send me the photo, name, date of birth and nationality. … Send it to me, and I’ll check if everything is correct. OK?”
The woman received her identification set, including a Social Security card bearing a number belonging to another person, investigators later discovered.
Electronic surveillance, which in the closing months included the recording of phone calls and tracking the wire transactions made from Columbus stores to Mexico, finally brought the case to a conclusion.
“It’s always in the back of their minds that this day is going to come,” Pohl said of those who deal drugs. But the defendants in this case, he said, “were pretty comfortable.”
“The element of surprise was on our side.”