Mexican cartel moves into Northeast Ohio, three-year investigation sends 19 to federal prison

CLEVELAND, Ohio (WEWS) - The Sinaloa drug cartel, once run by one of the most wanted men in the world, El Chapo, is right here in Northeast Ohio. It's a drug-trafficking ring moving large amounts of drugs from Mexico onto our streets.

"I don't think people understand how significant and embedded it is in Northeast Ohio," said Keith Martin, Assistant Special Agent in Charge of Cleveland's Drug Enforcement Administration. 

Authorities recently found a stash house in a Maple Heights neighborhood and another on Cleveland's west side. 

"The unfortunate fact is the drugs on our streets come from somewhere. Coco plants don't grow in Cleveland. Poppy plants don't grow in Parma, they come from somewhere else. They are, increasingly, in almost every case, the drugs are coming from Mexican cartels," said Justin Herdman, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio. 

A three-year long DEA investigation, dubbed "Operation Loaded Deck," focused on taking down the local arm of the notorious Sinaloa cartel. 

During the investigation, authorities seized large quantities of heroin, cocaine and fentanyl, some of which were concealed in hidden compartments in cars. The drugs were moved across the U.S.-Mexican border and transported in these cars outfitted with secret traps. 

"Often times they'll go to great lengths, whether they've constructed a trap in a vehicle or a natural void in the vehicle," Major Gene Smith with the Ohio State Highway Patrol said.

Just as astonishing, Cartel members were hiding in plain sight the whole time, even taking in a Cavaliers game — courtside.

"These aren't street-level dealers, they were dealing in massive quantities and, in return, huge amounts of cash," Herdman said. 

By the end of the investigation, 29 kilos of cocaine, eight kilos of heroin, a kilo of fentanyl and four pounds of marijuana were seized, along with nearly $350,000, guns, vehicles and dozens of cell phones. 

Operation Loaded Deck ended with 19 people sent to federal prison for their roles in the drug trafficking organization.

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