Sam Quinones and Richard Winton, Los Angeles Times, March 25, 2009
For two decades, a Oaxacan Indian family allegedly ran an international drug ring that smuggled heroin through Tijuana into Southern California, generating millions of dollars in profit that returned to Mexico.
Family members lived humbly, with underlings distributing the drugs in open view at parking lots of 99 Cents stores, Food 4 Less supermarkets, Home Depots and McDonald’s restaurants. At these bustling locations, men inconspicuously trading brown shopping bags filled with heroin didn’t seem out of place.
They communicated using an Indian language from their home village–initially stumping investigators who listened to their exchanges on wiretaps.
“The language–that stalled us,” said Larry Zimmerman, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department’s lead detective on the case. They finally identified it as Mixteco Bajo, one of the main Indian languages in the state of Oaxaca, and brought in an interpreter.
On Tuesday, federal and local authorities arrested 48 members of the Mendoza family in raids at 38 residences and businesses that began before dawn and lasted into the afternoon.
The Mendoza clan allegedly sold 15 to 20 pounds of heroin every week–generating roughly $2 million a month in profits. Much of the money was sent back to Mexico, authorities said.
The clan allegedly used Ford, Honda and Pontiac vehicles. They stored the heroin in the cars–hiding it in engine blocks, gas tanks, steering columns, air vents and dashboards. Despite the hefty drug profits, family members lived in modest homes in suburbs such as Montebello.
On wiretaps, members of the Mendoza clan referred to the drug as “salsa,” “burrito,” “taco” and “shirts.” In safe houses, including one in the city of Commerce, the smugglers would cut the black-tar heroin with lactose using a coffee grinder, according to the affidavit.
Clan members would then break the heroin into quarter-gram amounts and place them in small multi-colored balloons and bunch them together in large plastic or paper bags.
The bags were then distributed to 11 street gangs, mostly in the East Los Angeles area, and other vendors. The gang members would sell the heroin to users from San Diego to Santa Barbara, according to the federal affidavit.
Each week, the network’s heroin was broken down into about 150,000 street doses, officials said.
“That’s enough to supply thousands of people every week,” said Tim Landrum, agent in charge of the Los Angeles office of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
“One customer we arrested came from Santa Barbara,” Zimmerman said. “He said it’s the best heroin there is. He’d buy a balloon for $5 in L.A. and sell it for $40 in Santa Barbara.”
The family allegedly smuggled the heroin through Tijuana in vehicles.
“I’m just shocked, to be quite honest with you,” said Felipe Lopez, a Oaxacan Indian immigrant and Cal State Los Angeles professor, who teaches classes on Mexican Indian migration to the United States.
Oaxaca is a mountainous state in southern Mexico, 2,500 miles from the border and home to 16 separate Indian tribes. Many Oaxacan Indians have immigrated to California in the last 25 years, with the largest population concentrated in the San Joaquin Valley, near Fresno, where most are farmworkers.