Lincoln, NE – In August 2013 federal law enforcement officials reported the arrest of 17 people linked to a single organization importing and selling meth in western Nebraska and northeast Colorado. Most of the accused lived in or around Ogallala and Big Springs, Nebraska. A dozen more people have been charged with having ties to the same group of dealers, according to officials familiar with the investigation.
Investigators dubbed the investigation “Operation Mexican Seafood.” Court documents reviewed by NET News indicate the boss of the local operation lived on a small ranch five miles outside of Big Springs, Nebraska and had meth supplied by large, illegal manufacturers in Mexico.
“It was a huge deal,” Scotts Bluff County Sheriff Mark Overman said. He says it was not only the size of the operation but the unmatched quality of the methamphetamine being imported. In the past two years informants and undercover officers purchased meth which is up to 95 percent pure, according to investigators.
Sheriff Overman says getting such high-quality drugs from street dealers indicates “the folks who are manufacturing it are really good at manufacturing it.” Since it would be almost impossible for small, local meth lab to deliver such pure meth he believes “you are probably looking at a major meth lab, a super-lab.”
The operation targeted in Operation Mexican Seafood shed some light into how the drug travels from labs in Mexico to dealers in rural Nebraska. The investigation had humble beginnings.
“That all started, believe it or not, with a Colorado marijuana buy,” according to Dana Korell, supervisor of the Scottsbluff-based Western Nebraska Intelligence and Narcotics Group (WING).
The investigators soon learned the drug deals stretched eastward, into the territory of the Central Nebraska Cooperative for Drug Enforcement, a second police task force based in North Platte. Both played a role in investigating the operation.
In 2012 an informant working for the drug investigation task forces bought pot from a pair of suspects. Caught in a police sting, the busted dealers told police “they wanted to go to work” and provide information about other dealers in the area. The case continued to expand as additional deals yielded new intelligence.
“That morphed into this giant methamphetamine case,” Korell said. As the investigation unfolded through 2013, officers marveled at the amounts of the illegal drug available from the dealers. “They were moving pounds. Pounds and pounds of methamphetamine,” he said.
At the height of the investigation 13 different local and federal law enforcement agencies tracked down leads and rounded up suspects.
Court records examined by NET News indicate informants and electronic surveillance uncovered a methamphetamine sales network stretching from northeast Colorado almost 200 miles east to North Platte, Nebraska. Police tracked money transfers funneling the money back to Mexico delivered by wire and personal couriers.
“I don’t think anybody had any idea the size and the quantity of the methamphetamine that was going through the Ogallala-Big Springs area,” Korell said.
Some of the drugs were allegedly distributed out of a small ranch five miles east of Big Springs. One informant, a street dealer out of Colorado, told State Patrol investigators he sold $3,000 worth of crystal meth picked up at the house. He identified Andres Barraza as “the boss.” Court documents list Barraza’s alias as “Guacho.” Loosely translated from Spanish it means “The Bastard.”
In June, Barraza pled guilty in U.S. District Court in Omaha to federal charges of conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and was sentenced to ten years in prison.
Nine others in the organization have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from 12 to 60 years in federal prison. Some sported long criminal records. Others were low-level dealers in Ogallala, linked by high school friendships and jobs at local fast food restaurants.
The busts apparently provided area law enforcement with a map of how incredibly pure meth made its way from the Mexican border to western Nebraska.
“Their distribution network is like, you think of it as tentacles of the octopus spreading out across the United States,” said Deb Gilg, the U.S. Attorney serving the State of Nebraska. “The influence of the Mexican cartels cannot be underestimated in terms of their sophistication, their network in bringing methamphetamine into Nebraska.”
Investigators are not saying if they have traced where specifically the high-grade methamphetamine originated, or which of the cartels might be the manufacturer, other than saying there is evidence it originated in Mexico.
Reports prepared by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in the Rocky Mountain and Midwest territories link the source of huge amounts of the methamphetamine sold in the region back to Mexico’s northwest coast in the Sinaloa province. Sinaloa had been the home base of the drug cartel operated by Joaquin Guzman Loera, known as “El Chapo.” His arrest in Mazatlán earlier this year created international headlines and was considered a major blow to the drug trade in Mexico.
Five years ago, law enforcement saw a significant drop in the number of people in Nebraska attempting to make inexpensive home-brew meth. Pseudoephedrine, a popular ingredient in cold medicines and available at drugstores, was distilled as an element in meth. A change in state law placed tight restrictions on the key ingredient used in small operations. Almost immediately south-of-the-border drug gangs began expanding sophisticated labs to make meth.
“What’s happened is the distribution network of the cartels have picked up and filled the void with meth coming in,” Gilg said. “It is frustrating to see the amount of drugs that are coming into Nebraska.”
From 2007-2012 statistics compiled by the Nebraska State Crime Commission reveal a significant increase in the number of drug arrests involving methamphetamine while cases involving heroin and cocaine dropped significantly. In 2013 there were 46 federal indictments filed on meth-related charges in the U.S. District Court of Nebraska. These are generally people accused of being part of an organization selling large quantities. Half of those arrests were made by the regional drug task force based out of North Platte. Some were also weapons charges filed against those involved in the drug trade.
Local law enforcement officials regard meth as the biggest crime problem in the area. In a survey conducted by NET News at the end of 2013, a sizable majority of county attorneys and sheriffs surveyed agreed meth was “the greatest threat.”
“It causes the most problems and by far the most violence,” Sheriff Overman said. “There’s a lot of associated crime. Theft, robbery, burglaries, and that creates the money to buy the methamphetamine.”
More meth dealers and suppliers working out of Nebraska and Colorado could be picked up based on intelligence collected during Operation Mexican Seafood. Law enforcement hopes it could also land bigger fish, including those operating one of the super-labs across the border churning out the high-grade meth flooding the market in the Great Plains.