In what is believed to the be the largest seizure of methamphetamine in Central Valley history, agents from the Merced Multi-Agency Narcotics Task Force arrested 11 men over the past few days and confiscated more than 330 pounds of methamphetamine.
The lengthy investigation, dubbed Operation Crystal Clear, delved into the smuggling activities of Millennium, a transnational drug cartel, according to Merced County District Attorney Larry D. Morse II.
Acting on an informant's tip, task force agents conducted a "buy/walk" in which drugs are purchased without making an arrest at that time. The agents purchased one pound of methamphetamine in April.
Agents quickly discovered they had come upon a very large transnational narcotics manufacturing and distribution operation seeking to expand its reach into Merced and the Central Valley. They also determined that the cartel was operating from Michoacán, Mexico, Morse said.
"Our deputy took what could have been a one-time drug deal of a pound of meth and helped turn it into the seizure of more than 330 pounds of one of the most toxic and destructive drugs on the streets," Said Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin. "We obviously are very proud of his efforts and the work of all the agents who participated in this serious disruption of the illicit profit making activities of a transnational drug cartel."
The investigation encompassed the counties of Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Alameda and Merced, with search warrants served at multiple sites.
The biggest meth haul came from a so-called conversion lab, where powdered meth is converted into ice crystals for smoking in Rialto in San Bernardino County. There, agents found 191 pounds of methamphetamine and over $15,000 in cash.
A search warrant in Huntington Park in Los Angeles County, found a residence containing 68 pounds of meth; another conversion lab in Victorville in San Bernardino County, yielded approximately 42 pounds of meth. The largest share of money, nearly $70,000, was recovered from a residence in Paramount in Los Angeles County.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris was effusive in her praise of the efforts of the agents involved in Operation Crystal Clear.
"The dedicated Special Agents of the Department of Justice have helped disrupt and dismantle another transnational drug cartel operating and transporting narcotics in California. This operation exemplifies the collaborative and diligent efforts of state and local law enforcement," she said.
According to Ben Buford, Special Agent in Charge of the state Attorney General's Bureau of Investigation in Fresno, which coordinated the operation with the Merced task force, the Millennium cartel was smuggling methamphetamine in powder form across the border to be converted to meth crystals in California.
"It is difficult to smuggle the ICE'd meth (crystal methamphetamine) as the crystals are easily smashed during transportation and harder for them to sell. We also learned that they offered their customers the option of buying the powder form at a reduced rate. The customer could then convert the powder to ICE methamphetamine and make a greater profit," Buford said, noting that the larger crystals make smoking methamphetamine easier.
All total the agents seized more than 330 pounds of methamphetamine, with a street value of more than $9 million, according to Morse. Agents also seized more than $100,000 in cash and three vehicles and arrested 11 individuals. The names of the arrested have not been released. According to officials, at least half can be directly linked to a Mexican cartel and most are not U.S. citizens.