In the biggest drug bust in Antelope Valley history, sheriff’s deputies seized an estimated $29 million worth of cocaine and $264,000 in cash from a Palmdale house, authorities said Tuesday.
The residents of the house, Arturo Castro Gastelum, 21, and Aurelio Leon Beltran, 22, were arraigned Tuesday in Los Angeles Municipal Court on narcotics and firearms charges that could lead to up to 38 years in prison if they are convicted, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Marian M. J. Klein.
Investigators suspect the house was a major distribution center supplying cocaine to dealers throughout Southern California, said Joe Halpin, a sheriff’s narcotics detective who was involved in the raid.
“About 200 kilos were found in a secret compartment they built into one of the walls,” he said. “I would say they were intending to work out of the house for quite some time.”
A smaller quantity of cocaine was found in a bedroom cupboard, resulting in a total seizure of 267 kilograms, Halpin said.
In the back seat of a Volkswagen in the garage, deputies found cash believed to be from narcotics sales.
The suspects, both Mexican citizens from the state of Sinaloa, pleaded not guilty to the charges during an arraignment in Los Angeles Municipal Court. Judge Craig E. Veals ordered them to remain in jail in lieu of $5-million bail each, pending a Jan. 27 preliminary hearing.
Klein of the district attorney’s major narcotics and forfeitures division said that it is unusual for a small investigative team based at a sheriff’s station to make this major a drug bust. Most of the larger busts are made by multi-agency drug task forces funded by the federal government.
“It’s a significant seizure,” Klein said. “In the real world (of drug trafficking), it will not make a terrible dent. But it is a lot of narcotics that were taken off the street.”
The Palmdale raid was the culmination of a three-month investigation that led deputies to a house in Lawndale last Friday, Halpin said. At that residence, deputies searched a Nissan Sentra and discovered 20 kilograms of cocaine in a hidden compartment.
No arrests were made at that house, but investigators found information there that led them to another house in the 37700 block of Cottonwood St. in Palmdale.
Armed with a search warrant, deputies knocked at the house late Friday night. “They refused to open the door, so it was rammed open by deputies,” Halpin said.
When deputies entered, Gastelum and Beltran surrendered without incident, he said. A revolver belonging to one of the men was seized inside.
Halpin said he believes the cocaine originated in Columbia and was then diluted and repacked by a Mexican cartel, “who would send it up for sale in the United States.”
He said the house appeared to have been a distribution “cell,” which sold large quantities to intermediate dealers. These dealers would then divide what they bought into smaller amounts before it reached the street. Such distribution centers are often set up in remote communities like Palmdale, Halpin said, where it may be easier to avoid detection.
“The distribution center will not be close to where the cocaine actually hits the street,” he said.
Halpin said the Palmdale bust will pose at least a short-term hardship for the drug network that set it up. “It will delay them for a while because they’ll have to look for another place to distribute from,” he said. “And they’ll have a serious financial setback.”