Marijuana ring linked to Mexican drug gang busted

Some of the marijuana seized from growing operations on federal and state public lands in San Diego and Riverside counties in a two-year federal investigation into marijuana growing operations.

Greg MoranNorth County Times
6 hours ago • Greg Moran

SAN DIEGO — A two-year federal investigation into marijuana growing operations on federal and state public lands in San Diego and Riverside counties led to charges against 10 people connected to a Mexican drug trafficking group, authorities announced Wednesday.

The people charged are mid-level to high-level managers in the group known as the Sotelo drug trafficking organization, U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy said at a news conference at the federal building in downtown San Diego.

The gang’s existence and extensive operations weren’t known until the discovery of a marijuana farm near Julian in 2010, where investigators found a cellphone with contact numbers that eventually led to members of the group. The group’s leaders are believed to be in Mexico, but authorities declined to provide more information on them because the investigation is ongoing.

Dubbed “Operation Mountain High,” the investigation included using wiretaps on more than a dozen cellphones and battery-operated cameras mounted on remote trails that led to the grow sites. The cameras captured defendants coming and going.

Members of the Narcotics Task Force, a joint federal, state and local law enforcement group, served search warrants Tuesday on more than a dozen locations in El Cajon, Lakeside and Valley Center in San Diego County and Perris, Hemet and Temecula in Riverside County.

They seized a dozen firearms, $237,000 in cash and 300 pounds of marijuana. Over the course of the investigation into the marijuana farms, some 45,000 pot plants were seized and destroyed.

All 10 people face charges of conspiracy to distribute marijuana. They include Daniel Malaquias Mendoza, 33, of Perris, who was described in a criminal complaint as a high-level manager who oversaw operations of the drug gang in the United States. He also currently faces charges of illegally growing marijuana in Riverside County Superior Court.

Duffy said the marijuana farms were damaging public lands, and leaving a trail of trash, illegal pesticides, herbicides, and other debris in their wake.

She said this investigation was different from the usual busts made of marijuana growing operations because authorities were able to arrest higher-ups in the drug group. Typically, only the low-level tenders of the growing operations, who stand guard over the farms in remote areas on public lands, are arrested.

This investigation began in September 2010, when aerial surveillance by task force members revealed the marijuana growing operation near Julian. A raid on the farm led to arrests of four people but yielded the crucial piece of evidence: a cellphone that contained contact numbers for what turned out to be key members of the group.

Eventually, wiretaps were placed on 14 cellphones for a six-month period this year, helping investigators collect evidence, Duffy said.

Between September 2010 and October of this year, the task force turned up eight marijuana farms in Julian, Valley Center, Pala, Palomar Mountain, Riverside and the Cleveland National Forest. They also found that the marijuana was being stored in “stash houses” in El Cajon and Menifee.

Of the 10 people charged in the case, six were arrested Tuesday and four remain at large. In addition to Mendoza, the others in custody are John Philip Lombardo, 57, of Lakeside; and Jose Villa Garcia, 43, Francisco Villasenor Ortiz, 31, Miguel Mendoza Mendoza, 26, and Roberto Valencia Martinez, 37, all of Perris.

Those being sought are Antioco Sotelo Ayala, 41, and Juventino Artemio Sotelo, 43, both of Hemet; Adrian Chavez Garduno, 27, of Perris; and David Chavez Garduno, 23, of Temecula.

Agencies involved in the investigation were the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Internal Revenue Service, San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and San Diego Police Department.