Pubdate: Wed, 12 Aug 2009
Source: State, The (SC)
Copyright: 2009 The State
Authors: John Monk and Rick Brundrett
Bookmark: (Drug Raids)
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)


Sweeping Midlands Operaton; Mexican Cartels Supplied Gangs

Federal, state and local law enforcement agents arrested dozens of 
reputed drug suppliers and dealers across the Midlands in 
simultaneous raids that began before dawn Tuesday.

The massive operation -- described as one of the largest roundups 
ever in South Carolina -- was aimed at shutting down drug suppliers 
and street-level dealers supplied with cocaine and marijuana by 
Mexican cartels. Most suspects are gang members, authorities said.

Clad in black body armor, some 16 "takedown" teams of 10 or more 
heavily armed officers from the FBI, the State Law Enforcement 
Division and city and county law agencies surrounded targeted 
residences in Richland and Lexington counties.

Mexicans with ties to violent Mexican drug cartels were living 
illegally in Lexington County, smuggling in some 44 pounds of cocaine 
a week, U.S. Attorney Walter Wilkins said at a news conference late 
Tuesday. The cocaine was then distributed throughout the Columbia 
area, he said.

"We have unveiled a vast conspiracy of high-level drug dealers," Wilkins said.

Some suspects are members of the Chicago-based gang Folk Nation, Wilkins said.

Others are members of lesser gangs known only in their local 
neighborhoods, he said.

FBI Special Agent in Charge David Thomas called the roundup the 
result of "one of the largest gang investigations ever in the history 
of South Carolina."

Hundreds of hours of wiretaps, undercover cocaine buys and covert 
surveillance by an FBI Violent Gang Task Force for more than a year 
preceded the raids, authorities said.

Wilkins identified the Mexican drug cartels supplying the Lexington 
County suspects as Las Zetas and Sinaloa, known for violence. The 
Lexington County "cell" had ties to others in Charlotte, Raleigh and 
Atlanta, Wilkins said.

Unpublicized raids in Lexington County in March netted 18 suspects -- 
11 of whom are Mexicans illegally in the United States. Those were 
the initial arrests, officials said.

The FBI began wiretapping those suspects in September. In all, the 
agency intercepted communications on 27 telephones, according to a 
federal affidavit.

Court papers said the FBI was specifically targeting a Mexican 
drug-trafficking organization that was converting large quantities of 
cocaine it brought into crack cocaine for distribution in S.C. neighborhoods.

On the Raids

Tuesday, facing overwhelming force, most suspects surrendered without incident.

Reporters and photographers from The State rode along with officers.

Each raid team was accompanied by dogs that can sniff out drugs or 
people who might try to hide in a house, as some suspects did. Each 
team had a battering ram to knock down doors. And each team had a 
member who ran around the back of buildings to spot anyone who might 
jump out a rear window.

"You never know how people are going to react," said First Sgt. Jerry 
Maldonado, who helps lead the Richland County Sheriff's Department 
narcotics division and is an expert with his hand-held steel battering ram.

Suspects were read their legal rights, handcuffed, and loaded into 
vans. At some houses, women or older children clutched toddlers in 
diapers as they watched their fathers taken into custody. Neighbors 
stood silent on porches, eyeing the drama.

In many cases, targets were not at home. Officers moved on to a 
backup location for the missing suspect, or on to a new suspect.

Some suspects refused to surrender immediately.

At Brook Pines apartments off Broad River Road, a suspect poked his 
head out the front door, then ducked back inside and locked it. 
Officers bashed in the door with a battering ram. The man was hiding 
in a back bedroom with his girlfriend, but officers had no way of 
knowing what he might do.

"Come out now! Put your hands in the air, man. Put them in the air! 
Now!" yelled a gun-wielding officer. Eventually, dressed in pajamas 
and a T-shirt, the man surrendered.

At a house on Mildred Street in North Columbia, officers were about 
to leave without a suspect when Maldonado spotted some insulation on 
the floor. Looking up, he saw an attic entrance in the ceiling and 
yelled for the suspect -- whom he correctly guessed was hiding 
upstairs -- to give up. The suspect quickly did, especially after 
officers told him their dog would go into the attic.

Meanwhile, helicopters and airplanes from SLED and the Richland and 
Lexington counties sheriffs' departments were on standby in case any 
suspect tried to flee.

In Front of a Judge

More than 30 arrested defendants were arraigned Tuesday afternoon 
before U.S. Magistrate Joseph McCrorey in Columbia.

All, including four females, were shackled. U.S. marshals escorted 
the suspects into the courtroom in two main groups and seated them in 
the jury box.

Most defendants indicated they were too poor to afford lawyers. They 
were told they would be assigned public defenders or other 
court-appointed attorneys.

Defendants were quiet, though one woman told McCrorey she didn't 
understand her charges. A male defendant told the judge he needed 
dialysis treatments three times a week.

Relatives and friends of defendants packed the courtroom.

Most defendants face charges of conspiracy to distribute 5 kilograms 
or more of cocaine, 50 grams or more of crack cocaine, and 
unspecified amounts of marijuana, Assistant U.S. Attorney Stacey 
Haynes said in unsealing various indictments against the defendants. 
Most also were indicted on charges of using a telephone to further a 
drug trafficking conspiracy.

In addition to the conspiracy charges, a number of defendants face 
charges of possession with intent to distribute 5 or more grams of 
crack cocaine.

Federal penalties are steep for drug trafficking in larger 
quantities. The conspiracy charge, for example, carries a prison 
sentence of 10 years to life and a $4 million fine for someone with 
no prior felony drug convictions, and a mandatory life sentence and 
an $8 million fine for those with two or more felony drug 
convictions, Haynes said.

McCrorey gave secured bonds ranging from $75,000 to $200,000 to some 
defendants. Haynes recommended bail be denied for others with serious 
prior records; in those cases, McCrorey scheduled detention hearings 
for Friday.

One defendant arraigned Tuesday was Travis Gunter, who was detained 
on a $100,000 secured bond.

Gunter was arrested about 9:45 am. at a single-wide mobile home on a 
dirt stretch of Sharpes Hill Road near Gaston. Two pit bulls chained 
to pine trees in the front yard barely reacted as officers surrounded the home.

Gunter, wearing plaid shorts and a T-shirt, opened the door and was 
arrested without incident. Officers found no weapons or drugs. A boy 
gave Gunter's tennis shoes to officers.

Another boy was in the home at the time, along with a woman. A Crown 
Victoria -- a standard police-vehicle model -- and a Chevrolet 
Suburban were parked in back.

Authorities stressed all suspects arrested Tuesday face a mandatory 
minimum of 20 years in prison and a maximum of life. Prior drug 
convictions may substantially increase the time in jail.

Gangs Connection

Authorities declined to estimate what percentage of the large amounts 
of cocaine that routinely come into the Midlands had been choked off 
because of the raids.

But the FBI's Thomas stressed the operation's significance.

He said law officers across the state have told him gangs that 
finance their activities with drug sales are their major problem.

"In too many neighborhoods, too many people are threatened by gang 
violence," Thomas said.

SLED Director Reggie Lloyd said the action should be replicated 
elsewhere in the state.

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said, "The message we want to send 
to gang-bangers and drug dealers throughout the Midlands is, 'We're 
going to get you.'"

Another observation came from an exuberant Richland County officer, 
who exclaimed after one "takedown": "It's great to have a bad guy 
going to jail!"
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake