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Four arrested in marijuana busts in Turlock, Hilmar
penaloza rafaela
Rafaela Lopez-Penaloza



Two separate investigations into marijuana cultivation operations led to two drug busts and the seizure of more than 200 pounds of marijuana.

The first raid was conducted Thursday morning at a home in the 900 block of South Avenue.

The investigation led agents from the Turlock Narcotics Enforcement Team to suspect the South Avenue home was being used as a site for marijuana cultivation and sales and a search warrant was obtained for the property, said Turlock Police Lt. Ron Reid.

At the residence investigators found more than 100 pounds of marijuana in varied stages of processing and packaging. Reid said 64 pounds were packaged in one pound bundles ready for sale and an estimated 40 more pounds were being dried and packaged.

Additionally, investigators found marijuana plants growing in the back yard.

The estimated street value of the seized marijuana is more than $150,000, Reid said.

Located at the home were Ines Suarez, 60, and Rafaela Lopez-Penaloza, 45, both of Turlock. Both women were taken into custody and booked into the Stanislaus County Public Safety Center.

Suarez and Lopez-Penaloza were booked for cultivation and possession for sales of marijuana. Lopez-Penaloza was booked for additional charges related to the possession of concentrated cannabis. 

A rifle also was taken at the residence.

The investigation is ongoing.

The second drug bust was made Thursday afternoon by the Merced Multi Agency Narcotics Task Force as part of the ongoing Operation Mercury investigation.

The target of the raid was a home in the 21000 block of Bloss Avenue in Hilmar. Agents were conducting a compliance check at the home when they noticed marijuana plants grown to such a height that they were visible over the fence, said Merced County Sheriff’s spokesman Deputy Tom MacKenzie.

The agents found approximately 150 plants, some as high as 14 feet, MacKenzie said.

Also seized were an estimated 100 pounds of packaged marijuana.

MacKenzie said the house was being used as a processing center for the marijuana, with one room used solely for drying the plant. A tent in the back yard also was being used to dry marijuana.

Taken into custody on cultivation charges were Luis Viera, 47, and Jesus Vasquez, 38, both of Hilmar. Both men remain at the Merced County Jail in lieu of $15,000 bail for each, MacKenzie said.

The marijuana plants were destroyed at the site with the use of a borrowed backhoe.

Operation Mercury has been targeting agricultural land in the counties of Merced, Madera, Kings, Tulare, Kern and Fresno. Beginning in March 2012 to the present, Operation Mercury has resulted in 71 federal defendants charged and three federal defendants convicted and sentenced to prison. Sixty-six federal search warrants resulted in the seizure of 120,598 plants, 1,509 pounds of processed marijuana, 32 firearms, and $4,869 cash.

The combined federal and local eradication and enforcement efforts of Operation Mercury have resulted in an overall seizure of more than 400,000 marijuana plants, primarily from agricultural lands; more than 100 firearms; and more than 175 total arrests. Investigations are ongoing, and the numbers are expected to increase.