Feds charge 28 HawaiiBy Rod Ohira
suspects in far-reaching
Nayarit, a small southwestern coastal state known as the "elegant lady of Mexico," has become a major supplier of black-tar heroin in the United States.
Yesterday, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Drug Enforcement Administration capped a one-year investigation of a Nayarit-based organization by charging nearly 200 people in 12 U.S. cities with trafficking heroin.
Ten of those charged are from Oahu and 18 from Maui.
Local federal agents began rounding up suspects in "Operation Tar Pit" yesterday at 6 a.m. By late yesterday afternoon, seven people from the Oahu group and 11 from Maui were in custody.
Steven Alm, U.S. attorney for the district of Hawaii, says Alejandro Guzman and Jose Manuel Cervantes are the leaders of the Oahu and Maui operations and both worked for Oscar Hernandez Garcia, a southern California-based distributor.
Guzman was arrested yesterday but Cervantes is still at large.
Myron Fuller, special agent in charge of the FBI's Hawaii office, said agents seized seven pounds of black-tar heroin, about $5,000 cash and a weapon during yesterday's roundup. The heroin has a street value of about $750,000, he added.
Last month's arrest of 70 people on Maui and the July 1997 murders of brothers Armando and Arturo Renteria-Hernandez on the Big Island are tied into the Nayarit operation, said Alm.
Alm described the operation here as "very sophisticated."
"People came here to work for a few months and then go elsewhere," Alm said. "They were interchangeable drug dealers."
The "interchangeable" aspect made it difficult for local law enforcement to get a handle on them, added Alm.
The ring used juveniles, women and men to move black-tar heroin, which was often concealed under their clothing or in the backs of boom-box stereos.
The Oahu indictments note that on March 7, April 4 and May 24 of this year, three different women flew to Hawaii carrying heroin. In two of the cases, the women transported about 800 grams each.
Myron Fuller of the FBI said a quarter-gram of black-tar heroin sells for $50 in Hawaii.
Billy Fernandes, a DEA group supervisor, added that peddling heroin is a profitable business in Hawaii due to the lack of competition.
"You can buy a piece, which is 25 grams, in Southern California for $900 and sell it here for $3,000," Fernandes said.
The Nayarit ring was distributing 80 pounds of heroin per month, worth more than $7 million, in 22 cities, the DEA said.
The Nayarit version is 60 percent to 85 percent pure and cheaper than Columbia heroin, which is white because it is processed more. Black tar heroin is most frequently dissolved, diluted and injected although it also can be smoked.
With the high purity, there's a greater risk of death.
"You might be using the same amount but with a high amount of purity, it's like you're actually taking more," said Dr. Alvin Omori, city chief medical examiner.
Omori said there was a cluster of five or six deaths about a year ago related to drug overdose where heroin was a common denominator. "It hasn't picked up since then," Omori added. "In a given year, we get 25-30 (drug overdose deaths)."
Omori said there's a big difference between crystal methamphetamine and heroin, which are two notable street drugs in Honolulu. "People on amphetamines are dangerous because they pose a threat to others," he said. "People on heroin are a threat only to themselves.
However, he added, "To get money to purchase heroin, many commit property crimes."
Maui Police Chief Thomas Phillips observed that black-tar heroin appeals to a wide range of people.
"What we're seeing now are younger users," Phillips said. "When I was working narcotics/vice in the '80s, the heroin user was typically an older Caucasian man.
"Now, it's in all the age groups and areas on Maui."
So what will be the impact of "Operation Tar Pit" on the local market?
"We're going to see a lot of sick people in a month," Fernandes said. "The availability of black-tar heroin will be scarce for a while."
But the operation will continue as long as there's a demand, added Phillips.
"We put a dent in it but there'll always be a supply as long as the demand is there," Phillips said.
In addition to Hawaii, federal agents targeted Nayarit operations in San Diego, Los Angeles, Bakersfield, Calif., Portland, Ore., Anchorage, Las Vegas, Reno, Nev., Phoenix, Yuma, Ariz., Albuquerque, N.M., Salt Lake City, Denver, Cleveland, Columbus and Steubenville, Ohio, Nashville, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Corpus Christi, Texas.
"These are all cells operating from groups out of Los Angeles," said Kathy Roush of the DEA office in Hawaii. "Players are recruited to distribute.
"There's always been persons involved in the drug business in Nayarit but at some point the groups expanded and began growing and distributing heroin."
Those indicted in Hawaii are:
Oahu: Alejandro Guzman, Erik Zuniga-Mendez, Margarita Elena Santos, Jamie Mejia Garcia, Lorena Isabel Leon Osorio, Eva Sanchez, Alfred Castro, Robert Steven Ralston and two people, "Johnny" and "Rico," whose last names are unknown.
Maui: Jose Manuel Cervantes, Dionicio Banuelos, German and Fernando Arcadia, Vanessa Ahyen Contreras, Jerry and Kelimana Janiga, Tulsie Bliss Anderson, Brandon K. Blair, Gary Wayne Begley, Coursen Reed Hoke, Bonnie Leslie Barrack, Brian Henry Fisher, Janet Lynn Stewart, Sky Schaeffer, Sharon L. Rabbett, Jimmy Joe Jones and "Roberto," last name unknown.