EVERETT — The drug trafficking organization — a direct pipeline from Nogales, Mexico, to Snohomish County — was large and agile.
Its members changed phone numbers every two to three weeks, swapped out vehicles on a regular basis and frequently rotated drug runners to avoid suspicion.
For two years, local law officers and federal agents worked to untangle their network.
Their probe began with a confidential source who provided information in exchange for leniency on a criminal charge. That source described how the group from Mexico was selling several pounds of heroin, cocaine and meth in Snohomish County on a weekly basis.
Through the first year, the investigators conducted surveillance, used a confidential source to buy drugs and served search warrants. Later, undercover detectives posed as drug buyers but paid with marked bills.
The goal was to go beyond the street-level dealers all the way to the top.
And that’s what happened, according to allegations detailed in court documents.
Along the way, the Snohomish Regional Drug Task Force seized more than 11 pounds of heroin, 13 pounds of methamphetamine, 3.3 pounds of cocaine, 3,000 counterfeit fentanyl-laced pills and tens of thousands of dollars in suspected drug money. Undercover detectives also bought another five pounds of meth through routine monthly drug deals.
“The drugs and the money we seized were just a drop in the bucket of what was coming in … over those two years,” said Shari Ireton, a Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman. “It will make a significant impact. It was a very sophisticated drug trafficking operation. The detectives did a phenomenal job in their investigation to try to catch the people at the top. That’s how you make an impact, to get the main leaders.”
Court papers allege the leader of the organization was Juan Alberto Loya-Ponce, 29. Prosecutors say he was responsible for the oversight, financing and final approval of major sales. He’d regularly visit Snohomish County from Mexico to rotate couriers and meet new customers, according to the charges.
Also arrested was a 28-year-old man described as the second-in-command who stayed in Snohomish County to oversee the day-to-day operations, including taking orders and arranging various runners for deliveries, according to the allegations.
Detectives identified about 30 suspects during the two-year investigation, Ireton said.
In January 2017, detectives served search warrants on a Lynnwood apartment and a home in Mountlake Terrace. At the apartment, they seized eight pounds of meth, three pounds of heroin and three pounds of cocaine. The Mountlake Terrace home turned up “large amounts of U.S. currency,” drug ledgers and two suspects trying to climb out a window.
By 2018, undercover detectives had established a connection with the traffickers, often meeting monthly in restaurant, supermarket and casino parking lots to buy meth from a frequently changing cast of couriers.
The investigation involved the drug task force, the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
It wound down in November, and detectives began making arrests.
Inside the wallet of one alleged dealer were religious cards with Catholic imagery on one side, and a calendar on the other.
The calendar included an image of Jesus Malverde, who in some circles has been described as “the patron saint of narcotics traffickers, specifically from the Sinaloa region of Mexico,” court papers said.
While arresting the second-in-command, detectives say they found him carrying $12,000 in cash.
At a different Mountlake Terrace home, they collected a pound of heroin, a handgun, counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl and $37,000 in cash. Mixed in that money was $1,160 in marked bills from the regional drug task force.
Prosecutors intend to seek 10 to 14 year terms for the leaders of the trafficking organization, according to court papers.
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; firstname.lastname@example.org.