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Saturday, May 6, 2000

‘Operation Powerball’
smashes Maui drug
rings; 51 arrested

The leaders face 20-year
mandatory terms if found
guilty in the 'large-scale,'
Lahaina-based operations

By Debra Barayuga


The arrest of 51 people has crippled two drug rings headquartered on Maui, law enforcement officials say.

U.S. Attorney Steve Alm yesterday lauded the combined efforts of federal and local law enforcement -- dubbed Operation Powerball -- that netted alleged kingpin Felipe Ruiz-Castro, 31.

The head of a smaller drug organization, Jorge Salazar-Guillen, 32, was arrested in early April. More arrests are pending.

"It's safe to say the Ruiz criminal organization has been dismantled by law enforcement; the Salazar operation, severely damaged," Alm said.

The two rings are believed to have been operating as early as May 1999. The investigation of these two groups began in earnest in early 2000 by the local DEA and the Maui Police Department after the key players were identified.

Mark Trouville, associate special-agent-in-charge of the Los Angeles Field Division of the DEA, said the rings are not typical heroin or cocaine organizations. "These are folks who dealt with cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine ice and marijuana and were able to provide these drugs on a large-scale basis to a lot of folks in this community."

While the arrests won't wipe out the drug problem on Maui, it will make drugs a lot less accessible, said Maui Police Chief Tom Phillips.

The number arrested is believed to be the most ever in a drug raid on Maui.

While officials declined comment on the magnitude of both operations, they characterized the groups as "large-scale."

The rings were based in Lahaina and were most active on Maui, but had a wide range of customers on Oahu, Kauai and the Big Island.

According to indictments unsealed this week, the rings obtained drugs from Arizona, Las Vegas and Mexico and brought them to Hawaii via couriers, baggage and express-mail packages. Wire transfers were made to the mainland and Mexico to hide the proceeds.

Ruiz and Salazar have been charged under federal drug kingpin statutes for continuously violating drug laws and benefiting substantially from their activities.

Both face a mandatory minimum of 20 years imprisonment without the possibility of parole if convicted. Most of the co-defendants face up to life in prison, with a mandatory minimum of 10 years.

The Ruiz organization consists of about 58 members named in the indictments. Forty-one have been arrested so far, including four in California, two on Oahu and one in Arizona. Nearly all those named in the Ruiz indictments have been charged with conspiracy to distribute and possession with intent to distribute.

The La Fogata Mexican Restaurant in Lahaina, owned by Ruiz and Francisco Mora-Garcia, allegedly was used to store the drugs and served as a front for their organization.

The Salazar organization has about 20 members. About 10 from that group, including Salazar, were arrested in early April. At least three of 75 individuals indicted belong to both organizations.

While a majority of the estimated 10,000 Hispanics on Maui are hard-working, law-abiding folks, those arrested cast the rest in a bad light, Alm said. "Shame on them."

An assortment of drugs, cash, weapons and cars have been seized throughout the investigation.

In one instance, six kilograms of cocaine were found in two wrapped gifts seized from a suitcase that were labeled "To Papa, from Susie," and "To Nana, from Kelly." The suitcase belonged to a courier who was also arrested.

"That's a lot of drugs for a small community," said Tom Senecal of the DEA's Airport Division. Inserted in the packages were scented dryer sheets, allegedly used to confuse drug-sniffing dogs.

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