Former Columbus resident withdraws guilty plea in drug trafficking case

Erlin Lucero-Asencio

A former Columbus resident who authorities say had ties to the Sinaloa Cartel has withdrawn his guilty plea over his alleged role in a conspiracy to distribute drugs in Bartholomew County and the surrounding area, electing to stand trial on federal drug trafficking and money laundering charges.

Erlin Lucero-Asencio, a former Columbus resident, withdrew his petition to plead guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute controlled substances, including 500 grams or more of methamphetamine, with his recently appointed attorney telling a federal judge that he “did not fully understand his sentencing guidelines or possible sentencing adjustments when he signed his original request to plead guilty.”

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge James R. Sweeney II granted Lucero-Asencio’s request to withdraw his petition to plead guilty and ordered the charge to be included in a hearing next month to Lucero-Asencio and other defendants are aware that they have been offered plea agreements. Lucero-Asencio, who is facing two felony charges, is set to go to trial Aug. 26.

In September 2022, Lucero-Asencio was indicted by a grand jury and charged with one count of conspiracy to posses with intent to distribute controlled substances and one count of conspiracy to launder monetary instruments. The conspiracy to possess and distribute charge carries a possible sentence of 10 years to life in prison, while the money laundering charge has a possible sentence of up to 20 years in prison.

Federal prosecutors offered Lucero-Asencio a plea agreement for both counts, according to court records. This past August, he filed a petition to plead guilty to possess with intent to distribute controlled substances, including 500 grams of or more of methamphetamine. The petition that he signed stated that he understood that the crime he would be pleading guilty to carries a possible sentence of 10 years to life in prison and a fine of up to $10 million.

However, Lucero-Asencio declined to plead guilty to the money laundering charge, and federal prosecutors said they would proceed to trial on that count.

In November, Lucero-Asencio told his then-attorney Harold Samuel Ansell that he did not intend to plead guilty to either count in the indictment and wanted to be appointed a new attorney. Julie Chambers was appointed as his new attorney on Dec. 7.

Federal prosecutors said they would re-extend the plea offer “to give new counsel a chance to work with Mr. Lucero.”

Last month, federal prosecutors asked the court to inquire whether defense attorneys had informed Lucero and three other defendants in the case of the plea agreements they have been offered. Sweeney, the judge, set a hearing next month regarding the matter.

Federal authorities allege that Lucero-Asencio and more than a dozen other individuals were part of a drug trafficking network with ties to a Mexican drug cartel once run by notorious leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman that used a number of couriers and mailing companies to transport methamphetamine and other substances from the U.S.-Mexico border to Indianapolis.

From there, the drugs would be handed off to other individuals to distribute in other areas of central and southern Indiana, including Bartholomew and Jackson counties, according to court filings.

Other local residents who were arrested as part of the alleged conspiracy include Abel Ayala-Garcia of Columbus, Claudio Garcia-Morales of Columbus, Allison Perdue of Seymour and Victor Vazquez-Hernandez of Seymour.

Vazquez-Hernandez was recently sentenced to 10 years, seven months in prison after pleading guilty to one count of possession with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of methamphetamine.

Garcia-Morales also was recently sentenced to three years and 10 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute controlled substances, including 500 grams or more of methamphetamine.

Perdue is scheduled to be sentenced May 23.

Lucero-Asencio has a criminal history in Bartholomew County, according to local court records.

He was arrested in Columbus in 2013 after allegedly selling $5,300 in methamphetamine to a confidential informant on two occasions in the parking lot of the Kroger Marketplace on North National Road, according to a probable cause affidavit.

He also was arrested in Columbus in 2015 for possession of a cocaine after allegedly offering the drug to an individual in the bathroom of the El Corral Night Club on State Street.

Drug Enforcement Administration officials told The Republic in 2022 that the members of the drug trafficking ring were some of the biggest suppliers of drugs in Bartholomew and Jackson counties — including methamphetamine and fentanyl — and had 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.

The charges stem from an investigation launched by the DEA in 2021, court records state. Over the course of the investigation, federal agents received authorization to intercept and monitor communications on nine cellphones, including two phones belonging to Lucero-Asencio.

DEA agents said the suspects would routinely communicate and discuss obtaining and distributing methamphetamine over the intercepted phones.

Additionally, federal authorities said several of the individuals involved in the drug trafficking network attempted to disguise financial transactions to conceal that the money came from distributing controlled substances.

Court filings state that the conspirators sent at least 324 wire transfers totaling $291,116 from Indiana to Phoenix, Arizona, and Mexico from Jan. 5, 2020, to April 26, 2022 — including a wire transfer made directly from Columbus to a municipality in Sinaloa, Mexico. Sinaloa is a state along the Pacific Ocean in northwestern Mexico.