BOISE – A sweeping federal investigation into drug trafficking and gun crimes in the Treasure Valley has resulted in charges against 25 people as authorities attempt to disrupt the flow of methamphetamine and fentanyl from Mexican cartels into the area.
Four of those charged are from Ontario, including one defendant described in court filings as connected to the Sinaloa cartel.
“This is a significant punch against the drug trafficking in our area,” said Idaho U.S. Attorney Josh Hurwit in an interview with the Enterprise. The investigation continues, he said.
The charges come as federal and local authorities face a growing flow of illegal drugs into the area.
“Fentanyl and methamphetamine will continue to be the most significant drug threats in 2024,” according to a law enforcement threat assessment.
The federal charges result from the work of an FBI task force focusing on violent crimes and gangs and a federal DEA task force. Investigators identified the same people in both investigations, Hurwit said.
Investigators targeted organized drug trafficking operations.
“What we see is localized drug trafficking organizations that may be gang affiliated that develop relationships with the cartels and actually getting their supply of drugs from the cartels or cartel members,” Hurwit said.
The arrests represent “a major disruption of these particular drug trafficking organizations,” he said.
“The defendants distributed large amounts of methamphetamine and fentanyl throughout southwestern Idaho and eastern Oregon,” Hurwit said in a press statement. “Many of the individuals are alleged to have been in possession of firearms at the time they distributed the narcotics.”
One indictment charged Efren Avilez-Lopez, 81, and Maria Medina-Zeveda, 70, both of Ontario, with conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine in Idaho between February and May.
They were charged with two counts of distributing methamphetamine for transactions in Idaho on April 17 and April 25 and with one count of possession of meth with intent to distribute on May 14.
Prosecutors said in an Idaho U.S. District Court filing in June that the two “sold twenty-five pounds of methamphetamine to an undercover law enforcement officer and transported another twenty-one pounds of methamphetamine from California to Idaho.”
The filing said that Avilez-Lopez and Medina-Zeveda were Mexican nationals, unlawfully present in the U.S. and with “connections with the Sinaloa cartel.”
In February, Efren Alexander Aviles-Pacheco, 28, of Ontario, was indicted one count of possession of methamphetamine, one count of possession of fentanyl and one count of possession of cocaine in Idaho in November 2022, and one count of possession of a firearm in drug trafficking for having a 9 mm Ruger pistol.
He also was charged with unlawful possession of a firearm for having the pistol despite his conviction in Idaho in 2019 on an earlier drug charge.
Aviles-Pacheco said in a federal court filing on Aug. 8 that he intends to plead guilty to possession of meth and possession of a firearm.
Court records show he was indicted in 2018 for possession of methamphetamine and unlawful possession of a Glock pistol. A police search of a vehicle he was driving in Payette turned up methamphetamine and a gun reported as stolen in Malheur County, according to court filings.
“Alex recognizes his choices have resulted in an awful predicament. He is going to prison. Following his term he will be deported to Mexico. He really has no relationship with Mexico,” his attorney said in a court filing in 2019.
He was sentenced to 46 months in prison after pleading guilty to the drug charge.
In another indictment, Cheyanne Juarez, 30, of Ontario, was charged with distribution of meth in Idaho in January along with Owenn A. Mitchell, 40, of Salem.
In the same indictment, Mitchell was charged with Jason Castillo of Nampa with distribution of meth in Idaho in December 2022. Mitchell also been indicted on a federal drug charge in Oregon.
An Oregon grand jury on Aug. 3 indicted Tracy W. Nunes, 44, of Payette, for two counts of distribution of methamphetamine in Oregon in November.
“It is important to know that federal, state and local law enforcement are proactively working to dismantle drug trafficking enterprises in the Treasure Valley and elsewhere in Idaho,” Hurwit said at a news conference on Monday.
Hurwit said drug trafficking and guns go together.
“Drug dealers, whether its low-level drug dealers or people that have more sophisticated operations and might even be connected to the cartels, use firearms,” he said the interview. He said dealers use guns for protection and to rob each other.
“Firearms can be used as currency” in dealing with Mexican cartels, he said. “The cartels have a harder time in Mexico getting firearms.”
He said investigators have a priority of also disrupting the flow of cash, though that can prove challenging beyond seizures made during arrests.
“We’re emphasizing the need to hit the cartels and drug trafficking organizations where it hurts, which is the pocket book,” he said.
According to the law enforcement threat assessment, drug traffickers “utilize cash-intense businesses, such as stores, restaurants, and used car dealerships as the primary methods to transfer drug trafficking proceeds into legitimate funding streams.”
The assessment said that there is low confidence “that investigations into the money laundering activities of drug trafficking organizations by law enforcement investigators will impede the flow of drug proceeds through the region.”
Matthew Gomm, the DEA assistant special agent in charge in Idaho, said the influx of illegal narcotics can be traced to Mexican cartels.
“The Jalisco cartel is one of the main cartels responsible for the influx of methamphetamine and fentanyl into our communities,” he said.
The Jalisco cartel – or the Jalisco New Generation Cartel – is considered to be Mexico’s second-most important illegal syndicate, behind the Sinaloa cartel. The Jalisco cartel is considered to be extremely violent.
“It is my hope the announcement of these indictments will help bring some clarity to the enormity of the dangers our citizens and law enforcement face on a daily basis by the increased criminality of transcontinental criminal organizations in our communities,” said Kieran Donahue, Canyon County sheriff.
Malheur County Sheriff Travis Johnson said local police agencies also played a part in the long drug investigation.
“All the ones from Ontario, we helped work on those cases at different times and at different levels,” he said.
Hurwit said that while the arrests provide a “major disruption” to trafficking in the Treasure Valley, “there will be other individuals that seek to fill the space that’s left. I don’t want to say the problem is solved.”
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