By Ron Leir | Observer Correspondent
Federal, county and municipal law enforcement agencies partnered in busting an international drug smuggling ring whose alleged upper-echelon members are from Belleville and Kearny.
Investigators said the ring – comprising 18 suspects from six counties in northern New Jersey – transported cocaine in a gel-like form from Peru and converted it back into powder at various locations in New Jersey.
The fact that the illegal substance was “chemically masked” as a liquid, made to appear as a lotion or shampoo, made it hard to detect, said Hudson County Prosecutor Edward DeFazio.
“(The suspects) used a number of methods to ship the drugs,” DeFazio said.
The ring is believed to have smuggled in several hundred pounds of cocaine over the last few years.
In those instances when operatives flew with the contraband nonstop from Lima to Newark, they packed it in their checked luggage, not their carry-on bags, and “since it was masked, it couldn’t be detected in the normal course of airport security operations,” the prosecutor said.
Or, the stuff was shipped by mail, “FedEx, UPS, whatever,” he said.
“It’s the first time we’ve seen this process,” DeFazio said.
DeFazio said the ring – which was monitored by investigators over 16 months – used both individuals and shipping couriers, known as “mules,” to smuggle the cocaine to out-of-state “hubs” and, ultimately, to parts of Hudson and Essex counties, including Kearny, Belleville and Newark.
He said the suspects made trial runs and deliveries from Peru to the U.S. over several months to perfect their methods.
Investigators said that one of the alleged ringleaders, Jose F. Castro, 34, of 5 Dawson St., Belleville, exclusively held the cocaine-conversion formula.
“Now that the airlines, as well as immigration and custom authorities, have been made aware of this, I would assume that appropriate measures will be taken,” DeFazio said, but he cautioned that it would be “difficult to thwart this type of smuggling enterprise.”
“We’ll try to stay on top of it on our end, the best we can, under the circumstances,” he said.
“This is a very significant investigation.”
Asked if the ring had enlisted any airline baggage personnel in the criminal enterprise, DeFazio said: “At this point, we don’t know if that is the case. It’s an ongoing investigation.”
DeFazio said most of the suspects were taken into custody at their residences in the early morning hours over a period of several days.
Investigators seized more than two kilograms of cocaine with an estimated street value of more than $150,000, along with a total of $30,000 in cash (alleged proceeds of drug transactions), a loaded handgun and several vehicles, according to DeFazio.
Search warrants were executed at the second floor of 293 Maple St., Kearny; the first floor of 41 Magnolia Ave., Belleville; and 175 Garden Ave., Belleville, among other sites.
DeFazio said the process of converting the cocaine from liquid to dry form was conducted at more than one location but he declined to say where specifically.
Agencies that executed search warrants were: the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Narcotics Task Force, U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, Morris County Prosecutor’s Office, and municipal police from Harrison, Kearny and Newark.
DeFazio identified the chief players of the smuggling network as: Castro, Victor Ramos, 44, of 175 Garden St., Belleville; Luis Rios, 43, of 605 Elm St., Kearny; and Alfredo Lazol, 46, of 9 Maple St., Kearny.
Castro is charged with being “leader of a narcotics trafficking network”; conspiracy to distribute cocaine; maintaining or operating a drug production facility; possession with intent to distribute cocaine; possession with intent to distribute cocaine within 1,000 feet of a school; and possession with intent to distribute cocaine within 500 feet of public property. He remains in Hudson County Jail, Kearny, on $750,000 cash bail only.
Ramos is charged with being “leader of a narcotics trafficking network” and conspiracy to distribute cocaine. He was jailed on $750,000 cash bail only.
Rios and Lazol were each charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine and were each held in jail on bail of $500,000 cash only.
Other area suspects are: Jesus Tarazona, 50, of 221 Oakwood Ave., Kearny; Juan C. Rios, 30, of 308 Sanford Ave., Lyndhurst; and Paul Murgeitio-Tapia, 34, of 41 Magnolia St., Michael Murillo, 38, of 21 Cottage St., and Monica E. Angamarca, 26, of 41 Magnolia St., all of Belleville.
All are charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine.
Tarazona is being held on $125,000 cash/bond; Rios, on $150,000; Murgeitio-Tapia, on $200,000 cash/bond; Murillo, on $125,000 cash/bond; and Angamarca, $150,000 cash/bond.
Suspects from Newark are: Leon Bienvenid, 41; Mario Linares-Gonzalez, 34; Julio Cesar Lagos, 40; Jorge Vega, 64; and Edwin Miranda, 44.
Bienvenid is charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine, possession with intent to distribute cocaine, possession with intent to distribute cocaine within 1,000 feet of a school and within 500 feet of public property, unlawful possession of a weapon, possession of a firearm during a drug offense and certain persons not to have weapons. His bail was set at $250,000 cash/bond.
Linares-Gonzalez, Lagos, Vega and Miranda were each charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine and Lagos was additionally charged with possession with intent to distribute cocaine. Linares-Gonzalez’ bail was $200,000 cash only; Lagos and Vega had bail set at $150,000 cash/bond; Miranda’s bail was $100,000 cash only.
Also arrested were: Ronaldo Sosa, 39, of Perth Amboy; Diego A. Bayone-Guido, 36, of Paterson; Ricardo Buenas-Cardenas, 40, of Rockaway; and Milton Gonzales, 46, of Elizabeth.
Sosa was charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine, possession with intent to distribute cocaine and possession with intent to distribute cocaine within 1,000 feet of a school and within 500 feet of public property. Bail was set at $200,000 cash/bond.
Bayone-Guido, Buenas-Cardenas and Gonzales were charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine. Bail was set at $250,000 cash only for Bayone-Guido; bail for Buenas-Cardenas and Gonzales was set at $150,000 cash/bond.