Heroin bringing violent Mexican drug cartels to Western Washington

SEATTLE — The Seattle Division of the Drug Enforcement Agency says right now there are cartels hiding in plain sight.

KIRO 7 investigated how they are smuggling drugs and guns in and out of your neighborhoods.

A quiet, unsuspecting neighborhood along 22nd Street Southeast on the outskirts of Everett was the perfect cover for a violent Mexican cartel.

"For this area it's sort of just unbelievable," said a resident who didn't feel comfortable showing his face or saying his name.

But he did share what he saw early one morning in 2012.

"The cops were getting geared up and coming in fully dressed in black like a SWAT team," he said.

Dubbed Operation Black Ice, federal and local law enforcement officers arrested Cristian Berrelleza Verduzco.

The 31-year-old was a ringleader of a multi-million dollar meth, heroin and gun-trafficking ring with ties to the Beltran Leyva cartel.

Homeland Security also raided a stash house in Marysville.

The case stretched to Phoenix and beyond.

Verduzco and dozens of accomplices including his brother blended right in for years.

"There was no drug trafficking, no big parties or anything like that so they were being pretty discrete about what they were doing," said the resident.

In September, Verduzco was sentenced to 27 years in federal prison.

But this case is not unique.

"We do see cartels here," said DEA special agent Doug James.

We asked James to explain the presence of Mexican drug cartels here.

"We're 1,300 miles from the Southwest border, from Tijuana, but might as well be on our back doorstep," he said.

KIRO 7 found local independent traffickers work for three main criminal organizations - including the violent, Sinaloa cartel.

The DEA considers it the largest cartel in Mexico.
Notorious drug lord Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman was captured in 2014, but the multi-billion dollar drug empire continues with leaders like Ismael 'El Mayo' Zambada.

Another criminal organization with ties to Washington is the Knights Templar in the state of Michoacán.

This group was formerly known as "La Familia." Its leader is former school teacher, Servando "La Tuta" Gomez.

The Beltran Leyva Meza Flores Cartel out of Sinaloa also has links to Washington state.

After the capture of its leader in 2014, a new leader has emerged.

"We have drug-trafficking groups that are linked to the cartels," said James. "So they're not direct lieutenants that are living here, they are individuals who are working for the cartels."
The DEA told KIRO 7 an estimated 80 percent of their investigations in Washington are tied back to Sinaloa and Knights Templar in Mexico.

We asked, where in Washington are links found?

"All over," said James. "Our investigations have shown links back to Mexico from the Tri Cities, from Monroe, Washington, to Grays Harbor, Seattle, Kent. You name it."
I-5 is considered a pipeline for trafficking to and from Mexico.

Guns are sent south, drugs are brought north into our communities.

"We've seized large caches of weapons, bulletproof vests, sniper rifles, 50-caliber handguns and that's alarming to us," said James.
Meth and heroin DEA seizures in our state have increased from 128 pounds of meth and 26 pounds of heroin in 2008 to 250 pounds of meth and 273 pounds of heroin in 2013.
The DEA works closely with local law enforcement to bring down operations.
"It's a constant battle absolutely. It's a struggle. It's a challenge," said James.
Especially when criminals blend in so well. 
The DEA says cartels are here for business reasons.

Demand for heroin is high and as long as it stays that way, cartels will continue to operate in our neighborhoods.

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