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SALT LAKE CITY — What started with a small level drug deal on the street for about $50 grew into an investigation of a million-dollar drug trafficking ring involving Utah gang members and Mexican drug cartels.
Local, state and federal officials announced Tuesday that 27 people were recently indicted by a federal grand jury in Utah on 34 counts, including conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine, conspiracy to distribute heroin, conspiracy to distribute fentanyl, money laundering, engaging in a continual criminal enterprise and firearms charges.
"Based on the investigation to date, agents estimate that the organization and its members are responsible for approximately 420 pounds of methamphetamine being transported to, and distributed in the Salt Lake Valley during 2020 and 2021," according to the federal indictment.
During a press conference Tuesday held in the U.S. District Attorney's Office, local and federal agencies praised each other for their partnership in the operation and putting a stop to such a large flow of drugs coming into the state.
"It is important to recognize the amount of drugs seized, because if not for the large operation these drugs would be distributed on the streets of Salt Lake County and surrounding areas," Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera said.
Rivera stood Tuesday with the heads of several federal agencies in Utah to announce the results of an investigation that began in September and included members of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, U.S. Marshals Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Attorney's Office for Utah.
"This was a great investigation. It had all the bells and whistles for a bad made-for-TV movie: guns, drugs, smuggling, money laundering," said Matt Harris, the head of the U.S. Marshals Service.
Local Norteno gang members had teamed up with drug cartels in Mexico to distribute mass amounts of meth, heroin and fentanyl in Utah, according to investigators. A grand jury returned a sealed indictment against the defendants on Wednesday.
In addition to meth and heroin, fentynal pills, 15 guns and about $25,000 in cash was seized.
"Throughout this investigation, agents have conducted controlled purchases of counterfeit oxycodone pills that are purported to contain fentanyl," the indictment states.
Rivera said numerous hours of surveillance were logged collecting evidence on the group. Court documents indicate that several wiretaps to monitor the electronic devices of some of the defendants were approved in January and February,
Of the 27 indicted, 20 were in custody in Utah on Tuesday, two others were in custody out of state and authorities were working on having a third person extradited to Utah from Mexico. Authorities were still looking for four others as of Tuesday.
Eleven of those indicted were previously convicted of federal crimes, said acting U.S. Attorney for Utah Andrea Martinez. Among those indicted who have previously served time in prison:
- Jerry Phillip Vigil, 47, was convicted on a federal firearms charge in 2007 and attempted drug distribution in 2013. Newly filed charging documents state that he has "an extensive criminal history which includes 12 felony convictions for offenses including aggravated assault, possession of controlled substances, and possession of a firearm by a restricted person."
- Luis Cuna Vigil was convicted on a federal firearms charge in 2007.
- Joe Robert Rael, 52, was convicted of drug distribution in state court in 2009 and 2012.
- Patrice Raelynn Estes was convicted on federal drug charges Wyoming.
- Brandon Perrault was convicted on federal drug and firearms 2015.
During Tuesday's press conference, those indicted were described as "mid-level" members of the organization.
Jay Tinkler, with the DEA in Utah, said meth is the No. 1 drug currently being trafficked in Utah. Officials say meth is also the drug most associated with violence.
"It's not just the gang that becomes dangerous, it's the addict," Rivera said.
Tuesday's announcement comes on the heels of another large drug trafficking operation that was busted recently by the FBI.