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Feds Break Up Group Smuggling Fentanyl Over the Border in Fire Extinguishers

A fire extinguisher used to hide fentanyl. U.S. Department of Justice
A fire extinguisher used to hide fentanyl. U.S. Department of Justice

By: Brett Rowland | The Center Square

Federal officials announced Wednesday they busted a group using trucks to bring fire extinguishers filled with illicit fentanyl and other illegal drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border.

An arraignment was scheduled Wednesday afternoon for the final defendant arrested on a federal grand jury indictment that alleges a scheme to smuggle fentanyl, methamphetamine and heroin from Mexico into the United States. The indictment alleges the drugs were packed into fire extinguishers and concealed in loads of scrap metal.

During the two-year investigation, called Operation "Smoke Jumpers," authorities seized about 680,992 fentanyl pills, 3 kilograms of fentanyl powder, 17 kilograms of heroin, and 10,418 pills containing methamphetamine.

Nine people were arrested in a sweep that started on Feb. 8 and continued through Monday. One person was already in state custody. Seven additional defendants are fugitives believed to be in Mexico, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

"These defendants used a sophisticated network to smuggle immense amounts of fentanyl into our country," said United States Attorney Martin Estrada. "We know that every fentanyl pill can kill, but these defendants did not care about the widespread destruction they were causing."

The 15-count indictment unsealed on February 8 charges various defendants in drug trafficking counts and a money laundering conspiracy.

The nine defendants who were arrested are:

  • Oscar Ahumada Leyva, 43, of Mexico;
  • Miguel Antonio Rabago Valenzuela, 42, of Mexico;
  • Gustavo Rivero Rodriguez, 39, of Mexico;
  • Carlos Espinoza, 38, of Alhambra;
  • Erick Roque Angeles, 39, of Fontana;
  • David Sanchez Balderas, 26, of Denver;
  • Fernando Salgado, 36, of Riverside;
  • Rocio Guadalupe Acevedo Tonche, 32, of Ontario; and
  • Efren Quibrera Espinoza, 29, of Cudahy

Six of the defendants were taken into custody in the Los Angeles and Inland Empire regions of California. Five of those defendants have been arraigned, entered not guilty pleas, and ordered to stand trial on April 2, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Erick Roque Angeles is scheduled to be arraigned in United States District Court in Los Angeles later Wednesday. The tenth defendant – Toniel Baez-Duarte, 33, of Apple Valley – was already in state custody.

The investigation focused on Carin Trucking, a San Diego-based company owned by Leyva that operated at least six semi-trucks that regularly entered the United States from Mexico to deliver suspected narcotics to the Los Angeles area, according to a warrant to search a phone seized when Carlos Espinoza was arrested last week. The drugs, including counterfeit pills containing fentanyl, were concealed in fire extinguishers initially disguised as scrap metal and later in working extinguishers, according to the search warrant.

"Investigators have observed multiple drug transactions involving truck drivers and their semi-trucks," according to the affidavit in support of the search warrant. "The truck driver would drive into the United States from Mexico and cross the border usually carrying a load of scrap metal, and concealed inside will be a scrap metal fire extinguisher containing drugs. The truck driver would then make his way up to Los Angeles, to meet a courier, who would pick up the drug-packed fire extinguishers for further distribution."

Related Story: DEA Seizes Greatest Amount of Fentanyl in Agency History in 2023

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