An associate of Mexico's infamous Sinaloa drug cartel who became an informant for city and federal authorities helped derail a New York-to-Philadelphia cocaine pipeline, the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office said Wednesday.
The 17 arrests announced Wednesday followed a three-month sting operation involving an alleged ring that was trafficking cocaine from New York City to Philadelphia, using secret compartments in vehicles.
On May 13 and 20, 10 kilograms (22 pounds) and 18 kilograms (40 pounds) of cocaine were seized from vehicles delivering the drugs to Philadelphia, officials said. Lisette E. Pichardo and Juan D. Rivera of San Juan, Puerto Rico, were arrested May 13.
The second seizure involved a high-speed chase that resulted in a police car and a private vehicle being struck. Alexis Matos Colon, 35, faces charges in that chase as well as ones from his alleged involvement with the ring. In his mug shot, Matos Colon has a bruised and swollen left eye; officials said the injuries occurred during the chase.
Seized along with the cocaine were five handguns, 11 properties, 16 vehicles, and nearly $300,000 in cash, officials said. The cocaine has an estimated $2.8 million street value in Philadelphia, they said.
Most of the defendants, all from Philadelphia except for two from New York, are facing various charges of intent to distribute. Others are also charged with criminal conspiracy and with using phones to operate drug transactions. All the arrests were made in Philadelphia.
The bust followed a three-month investigation that involved wiretaps and undercover officers purchasing cocaine from members of the operation.
Jan McDermott, chief of the District Attorney's Office's dangerous drug offenders unit, detailed her department's work in tracking the moves and conversations of those involved with the alleged ring. The photo and name of Ricardo Rivera Colon, 36, of Northeast Philadelphia, sat atop a chart presented by the District Attorney's Office laying out the hierarchy of the alleged ring.
"He was the one who organized the trips, sent the people, the couriers, up to get the cocaine and bring it back down to the city," McDermott said.
The defendant-turned-informant was arrested in Philadelphia along with two others in September, as part of a separate investigation in which 10 kilograms of cocaine, weapons, computers and cash were seized. The District Attorney's Office refused to release their names at the time because of fear of retribution from the Sinaloa cartel, said to be one of the largest and most powerful in the world.
The informant, whose identity remains secret, would lead investigators to a garage on the 3000 block of Martha Street, officials said. That garage, owned by 45-year-old Anibal Cruz, was used to coordinate drug-selling efforts and also house roosters, they said. In addition to charges associated with the ring itself, Cruz faces charges of animal cruelty for alleged cockfighting.
Information acquired from the garage was used to track down other garages and auto body shops involved in the drug ring, officials said.
"From there it spiraled onward and onward until we got to the bigger players of the operation," McDermott said.
McDermott and District Attorney Seth Williams said garages and auto body shops equipping vehicles with sophisticated secret compartments have become a significant problem.
"Cocaine would basically be transported via the turnpike in secret compartments of vehicles down to Philadelphia, to be distributed within Philadelphia in the east part of the city, the northeast part of the city, and New Jersey," McDermott said. She later added: "There's no legitimate reason to have" the compartments.
House Bill 1521, introduced by State Rep. Kate Harper (R., Montgomery), would make possession of such a compartment, with the intention of using it criminally, a first-degree misdemeanor. Williams said the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association's legislative committee, of which he is chairman, has endorsed the bill.
The District Attorney's Office credited its dangerous drug offenders unit, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in Philadelphia and New York City, the Philadelphia Police Department, and other local police departments with help in dismantling the drug ring.