From more than 1,500 miles away in Puerto Rico, Fernando Diaz-Rivera allegedly ran one of Camden and North Philadelphia’s biggest drug rings for years while separated from his associates by an ocean.
On Tuesday, officials said, a state grand jury indicted the 34-year-old and 14 other members of the cocaine and heroin distribution network. Most of the members were arrested and charged last November after a seven-month investigation dubbed “Operation Inferno,” which led to the seizure of more than six kilos of heroin (about 13.2 pounds) and about nine kilos of cocaine (19.8 pounds) worth $600,000.
The alleged leader, Diaz-Rivera, who has homes in Salem, N.J., and Salinas, Puerto Rico, controlled the expansive ring for at least five years from Puerto Rico, where he was arrested. He faces numerous charges, including first-degree leading a narcotics trafficking network.
Members of the ring had ties to Mexican drug suppliers and used guns to carry out the operation. The group distributed 20 to 30 kilograms (44 to 66 pounds) of heroin and cocaine in Camden and North Philadelphia each month, authorities said.
Part of the drug money went toward buying new product, officials said. Diaz-Rivera’s girlfriend, Karina Olmeda-Burgos, then allegedly received orders from her boyfriend on how to spend the rest of the proceeds.
But their ring fell apart on Oct. 2, 2016, when detectives stopped two members driving a rental car from Chicago to Camden. Officials said they found five kilograms of cocaine and five kilograms of heroin under a car seat.
During the investigation, authorities also intercepted a four-kilogram package of cocaine that was mailed from Puerto Rico to Camden.
Second-in-command Luis Merced, 24, of Philadelphia, allegedly took orders from Diaz-Rivera. Merced is charged with first-degree promoting organized street crime and other first-degree drug charges.
The two heads of the ring are in custody, in Puerto Rico and Pennsylvania. Diaz-Rivera faces up to life in prison and Merced up to 30 years.
All involved were charged with with first-degree racketeering — carrying a sentence of up to 20 years in prison — and second-degree conspiracy.
Two others, arrested last year, have pleaded guilty.
The takedown is part of “comprehensive efforts” to fight the opiate epidemic in South Jersey, New Jersey Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino said in a statement.
As reported in the Inquirer last week, overdose fatalities in Camden County more than doubled in the first half of 2017, compared with the same period in 2016. More than 1,300 people have died of overdoses between January and June of this year in Philadelphia and the surrounding seven counties.
“By locking up Diaz-Rivera and his associates, we stopped tens of thousands of doses of heroin from reaching the street each week and undoubtedly saved many lives,” Porrino said. “This indictment will enable us to keep these defendants behind bars for a long time.”