Recent large heroin seizures show a resurgence of the drug in California unseen since the early 1970s, law enforcement officials said Thursday.
The flood of black tar heroin into the San Francisco area has driven down prices from as much as $500 an ounce to about $140 an ounce, Acting U.S. Attorney Lawrence Brown said in Sacramento while announcing the latest drug ring takedown.
"Heroin is making a comeback in the Bay Area," San Francisco Police Capt. Denis O'Leary said at the news conference.
A federal grand jury in Sacramento has indicted 21 Mexican and American citizens on charges of smuggling at least 440 pounds of heroin grown in the state of Michoacan, Mexico, through Tijuana to Modesto, in California's Central Valley.
From there, it was shipped to wholesalers throughout the San Francisco area. Prosecutors said one East Palo Alto-based wholesaler supplied hundreds of customers, using runners equipped with cars and cell phones to make deliveries. Prosecutors put the street value of the heroin at $17.5 million.
Drug smuggled in engines, transmissions
The drug was brought into the United States and cash was smuggled back to Mexico in at least three vehicles with secret compartments in their engines and transmissions, investigators said.
The federal indictment followed last week's arrest by state drug agents of a Mexican national accused of concealing 70 pounds of heroin in a secret compartment in the dashboard of his Lincoln Town Car. The seizure of heroin valued at $7 million was the largest ever in San Mateo County, south of San Francisco, state Attorney General Jerry Brown said.
In April, Brown's Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement arrested another Mexican citizen with 95 pounds of heroin, valued at more than $10 million, hidden in the wheel well of his sports utility vehicle. That seizure was in Anaheim.
San Mateo County District Attorney James Fox said the busts appear unrelated, but show a surge in heroin use not seen in 40 years.
"Back in the late '60s, early '70s ... heroin was much more prevalent," Fox said. "It had not been a problem for some time. Obviously it has increased dramatically."
Nearly half arrested after investigation
Officials said they have arrested 10 of the 21 people indicted by the federal grand jury after an 18-month investigation.
They include the alleged ringleader, Fabio Cazares-Zamora, 36, of Modesto, along with his suspected top assistant and nephew, 22-year-old Hugo Cesar Toscano-Zamora of Hayward. Toscano-Zamora is serving an unrelated narcotics sentence in San Quentin State Prison.
Cazares-Zamora and his wife, Martha Garibay-Hernandez, did not enter pleas during their initial appearance in federal court in Fresno on Wednesday. Their attorney, Assistant Federal Defender Francine Zepeda, did not immediately return a telephone message Thursday.
An Aug. 10 court appearances was set in Fresno for those in custody.
Authorities are seeking 11 others indicted last week — five in Mexico and six in northern California.
The charges include conspiring to import and distribute heroin and smuggle cash back to Mexico. Possible sentences range up to life in prison.