Thirteen suspected members of a notorious Mexican drug cartel are behind bars, and more than $10 million worth of illicit drugs have been seized as part of a months-long investigation in Ventura County, authorities announced Tuesday.
The arrests, which authorities say include high-ranking Sinaloa drug cartel members, were made as part of a multi-agency investigation that began last year, Ventura County Undersheriff Gary Pentis said.
Omar Rangel, 29, of the San Fernando Valley, was the local leader of the ring, according to a statement from the Sheriff’s Department.
Pentis said the drugs were smuggled from Mexico to stash houses in Southern California, where they were distributed to lower-level dealers in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. Authorities say the proceeds from drug sales are sent back to the cartel in Mexico.
Several search warrants were served throughout the year, resulting in the seizure of 161 pounds of methamphetamine, 121 pounds of cocaine, 13 pounds of Mexican heroin, more than 6 pounds of fentanyl and 600 fentanyl pills that were branded to look like oxycodone. The drugs were displayed on tables during Tuesday’s news conference.
“This type of economic seizure dismantles and disrupts these organizations,” Pentis said. “I hope there’s a significant disruption because of this.”
The Ventura County Sheriff’s Department released a list of 14 additional people who are either under arrest or whose “arrests are imminent” in connection with the ring.
They are: Bryan Vega, 20, of Reseda; Nancy Romero, 33, of Canoga Park; Cesar Alvarez Serrano, 30, of Winnetka; Alma Ceja, 47, of Downey; Richard Kevin Riley, 48, of Hollywood; Rhonda Harvey, 47, of Van Nuys; William Kragthorpe, 54, of Sherman Oaks; Xavier Lozano, 27, of Imperial Beach; Jose Florentino Soto, 40, and Joseph Rigoberto Soto, 21, of Los Angeles; Jorge Antonio Jimenez, 43, of Sylmar; Alondra Banuelos, 23, of Sylmar; Melissa Arnold, 45, of Oxnard; and Joshua Grimes, 34, of Simi Valley.
One of the first drugs seized as part of the investigation was fentanyl, a potent opioid that’s 50 times stronger than heroin. The white powder is increasingly being mixed into other drugs to produce a stronger high, authorities said.
Pentis likened law enforcement’s crack down on illegal drug trafficking to a “constant cat-and-mouse game.”
“This is just one of the groups,” Pentis said. “It’s a huge problem, but the problem we’re centering on is the deaths and destruction caused from fentanyl. Why fentanyl? It’s cheap and it improves potency. It’s about dollars and nothing else.”
Overdose deaths in Ventura County rose 42% from 2016 to 2017, in part because of the rise of fentanyl use, the undersheriff said.
Data show overdose deaths also are rising statewide. Fentanyl deaths in California tripled between 2016 and 2017, according to state health department data.
Authorities said they intend to make additional arrests as part of the investigation.