FEDERAL authorities have said that a group of people in Indiana who were indicted on drug trafficking and money laundering charges late last month had ties to a Mexican drug cartel that was once run by notorious leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman — including four people in Bartholomew and Jackson counties.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Indianapolis announced April 29 that 18 people from Indiana are facing charges for allegedly conspiring to distribute methamphetamine and other drugs in Bartholomew County and elsewhere in central and southern Indiana. Nine are accused of laundering proceeds of the conspiracy.
The announcement was made a day after raids were conducted in Columbus, Seymour, Terre Haute, Indianapolis and Detroit. Suspects include two people from Columbus, two from Seymour, 11 from Indianapolis, one from Terre Haute, one from Phoenix and one from Mexico.
An additional six people face state drug charges in Bartholomew and Jackson counties, federal authorities said.
Drug Enforcement Administration officials told The Republic that the individuals facing federal charges have ties to the Sinaloa Cartel, which experts say controls a wholesale distribution network in the U.S. and elsewhere to get drugs into the hands of local street dealers.
Some local officials, including Bartholomew County Sheriff Matt Myers, said people with ties to the cartel may still be operating locally.
“This is a big hit,” Myers said. “But I want people to know, locally, that the cartel is in Columbus, Indiana.”
“There are cartels presently here,” Myers added. “They’ve been here. They’re organized, and there’s probably cartel (members) here right now that we don’t even know (about).”
Officials declined to discuss the specifics of the case as it makes it way through federal court, but said the investigation resulted in the seizure of about 82 pounds of methamphetamine, 1,750 fentanyl pills, 35 grams of fentanyl, 1 kilogram of cocaine, 4 pounds of marijuana, “a large quantity” of suspected THC gummies, $9,000 in cash and nine guns.
As of Wednesday, no further details on the case had emerged in federal court filings.
Mike Gannon, assistant special agent in charge at the DEA’s Indianapolis Field Office, said the suspects were “some of the biggest suppliers” of drugs in Bartholomew and Jackson counties — including methamphetamine and fentanyl, a opioid that is more potent than heroin which officials say is one of the main culprits of a record surge in local overdose deaths in recent years — including at least 101 deaths since 2019.
“The outer counties were being supplied with significant quantities of methamphetamine from high-level sources in Indianapolis and then, of course, the ties back to Mexico,” Gannon said.
Gannon said the arrests and indictments were the culmination of a “long-term” investigation in collaboration with local law enforcement agencies, including the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department, Columbus Police Department, Seymour Police Department, among others.
“The partners were able to work with care and try to make a difference in our community, just like DEA. It was extraordinary work.” Gannon said. “…We’re going to continue to work hand in hand with Seymour police, Columbus police, Bartholomew County (Sheriff’s Department) and all our state and local partners to do what we need to do to combat this problem.”
The announcement of the arrests came just over a year after federal, state and local law enforcement said they had dismantled a drug trafficking network in the Columbus area with ties to a Mexican drug cartel, leading to about 60 arrests — including at least 36 federal indictments and 23 local prosecutions — and 25 federal convictions.
Named “Operation Columbus Day,” the investigation is believed to be the largest multi-agency drug investigation in Bartholomew County history.
It is unclear whether the 18 people recently indicted in federal court had any connection to Operation Columbus Day.
At least one of the people who was indicted — Allison Perdue — had been around one man who pleaded guilty to federal drug trafficking charges as a result of Operation Columbus Day.
Perdue, 24, was identified in a probable cause affidavit in 2018 as yelling “(expletive) the police” while a Columbus police officer wrestled Bryan Miranda-Alvidrez to the ground as a loaded 40-caliber Smith &Wesson pistol slid down the suspect’s pants.
Miranda-Alvidrez was later indicted and pleaded guilty to two counts of distributing 50 grams or more of methamphetamine and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He is serving time at a federal prison in Terre Haute, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Besides Perdue, who was living in Seymour, other local residents facing federal charges stemming from the arrests last month include Abel Ayala-Garcia, 31, of Columbus; Claudio Garcia-Morales, 35, of Columbus; and Victor Vazquez-Hernandez, 41, of Seymour.
All four were arrested within minutes of each other on the morning of April 28 and booked into the Bartholomew County Jail before being turned over to federal authorities.
Ayala-Garcia was arrested at 112 N. Hughes St., a few blocks from Columbus East High School, while Garcia-Morales was taken into custody at 2313 Maple St., just south of Columbus North High School. Perdue and Vazquez-Hernandez were arrested at undisclosed locations in Seymour.
The first local arrests of suspects named in the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s announcement took place a few months ago, court records show.
In February, Zachariah Farris, 36, of Seymour and Samantha Farris, 34, of Seymour were arrested after allegedly selling methamphetamine to a police informant twice, according to a probable cause affidavit.
Also in February, Daniel Parrish, 35, and Mariah Crowe, 39, both of Semyour, were arrested after a Jackson County Sheriff’s deputy found methamphetamine and paraphernalia during a traffic stop.
All four face felony state charges for dealing methamphetamine.
Another arrest came shortly before midnight on April 14, when a Bartholomew County Sheriff’s deputy parked in the median of Interstate 65 near Indiana Premium Outlets in Edinburgh was notified that a blue Honda traveling northbound had switched lanes without properly signaling.
Not long after, the deputy spotted the vehicle heading north on Interstate 65 and performed a traffic stop. As the deputy began questioning the driver, later identified as Antonio Cuautle-Cuenca, 37, of Indianapolis, he noticed an open can of Modelo beer in the center console.
Cuautle-Cuenca told the officer that he had been drinking and did not have a driver’s license. He later assured the officer that there was nothing illegal in the vehicle. However, the deputy found a glass pipe with residue under the driver’s seat cover.
A can of Red Bull also caught the officers’ attention, as it was heavy but didn’t appear to have any liquid inside. The can had a top that could be unscrewed. Inside, there were “several bags containing a crystal substance” that later tested positive for methamphetamine. Other bags containing what appeared to be methamphetamine were found in the vehicle, including inside a pack of cigarettes.
As of Monday, Cuautle-Cuenca, who is facing state felony charge of dealing methamphetamine, was still being held in the Bartholomew County Jail on $1.23 million bond.
It is unclear the extent to which the individuals facing charges were involved with the suspects who have been charged in federal court. Officials declined to comment because the investigation is ongoing.
Local and federal officials viewed the indictments as a further indication cartels have broadened drug distribution beyond major urban areas and are increasingly setting up shop in smaller cities.
Mexican cartels took over the U.S. methamphetamine trade in recent years, replacing the patchwork of “mom and pop” meth labs across the U.S. with clandestine, industrial-scale labs in Mexico, according to the DEA.
“They have dispatched people all over the United States,” Gannon said. “…They’re mass producing methamphetamine at the highest levels of purity. They’re mass producing fentanyl, and counterfeit fentanyl pills and then they have flooded the United States with it.”
“Certain people will be responsible for supplying certain areas,” Gannon added. “…You will see individuals who try to take over certain areas or supply certain areas, because you know, if you’re in Indianapolis, and you’re looking to supply drugs or other counties, you may be making more money (in other counties) than you would get on a price out of Indianapolis or a price from Chicago.”
Now, drug traffickers are increasingly mixing fentanyl into other drugs and counterfeit pills that are made to have the appearance of prescription medications like Xanax and pain medications, Gannon said, adding that a fatal dose of fentanyl “can fit on the tip of a pencil.”
“You don’t want to be in a situation where you’re taking any type of prescription medication unless you went to a doctor and you were examined by a physician,” Gannon said.
If people are getting the pills from a drug dealer on the street, “you just have to assume it’s being laced with fentanyl because we’re here to tell you that they’re being mass produced by these same cartels,” Gannon said.
By mail, highway or plane
Federal, state and local authorities have intercepted drugs in sent through the mail to numerous addresses throughout Bartholomew County. Law enforcement in Indiana and elsewhere have found drugs concealed in the nooks and crannies of vehicles heading east through Illinois on Interstate 70, as well as south from Indianapolis and north from Louisville on I- 65.
“Fentanyl is being shipped here through the mail,” Myers said. “It’s being brought up from the southwest border with Mexico. It’s coming up (Interstate) 65. Every night, our street guys are making arrests from people that have fentanyl or meth or stuff on them.”
Drugs also have also arrived in Indiana on private jets, including one that flew from Mexico to Gary multiple times as part of a drug pipeline that authorities say involved a Columbus resident.
This past November, DEA agents were staking out an undisclosed hotel in downtown Chicago about a block from the city’s famed Magnificent Mile shopping district when a 2015 Toyota Highlander with an Indiana plate pulled up near the hotel.
The driver of the vehicle, later identified as Columbus resident Rodrigo Alexis Jimenez-Perez, 26, got out and helped a suspect the agents had under surveillance load a suitcase that “appeared to be significantly weighted down” into the trunk.
The agents had been following the suspect since he arrived at Gary/Chicago International Airport in a private jet a couple hours before on a flight from Mexico that stopped over in Houston that officials suspected had millions of dollars of cocaine on board.
Jimenez-Perez had been booked into Bartholomew County Jail in January 2018 on charges of operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated and released two days later. But nearly five years later, DEA agents were following him as drove through one of Chicago’s upscale neighborhoods.
The agents performed a traffic stop and found about approximately 176 pounds of cocaine in the trunk. A search of the other suspect’s hotel room netted an additional 44 pounds of cocaine. Currently, a criminal case against Jimenez-Perez is pending in U.S. District Court in Chicago.