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Authorities announce 7 arrests in drug trafficking ring inquiry

Authorities in Ventura County seized more than $230,000 worth of fentanyl and methamphetamine and arrested seven people after an investigation into a major drug trafficking ring, officials announced Tuesday.

Homero Diaz, a 24-year-old Bakersfield resident and the suspected ringleader, was arrested March 16 and faces one count of possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Los Angeles field division.

For the record:

11:27 p.m. March 22, 2022An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that before the Feb. 10 drug deal, a detective and DEA special agent met with the second source, whom they searched along with the person’s car, put audio and video recording equipment in the vehicle and gave the source $4,500 to buy the drugs, the criminal complaint stated. The audio and video recording equipment was placed on the source, who was given $4,900 to purchase the drugs, the complaint stated.

Six other suspects — Manuel Martinez, 24, of Ventura; Apolinar Mena, 30, of Compton; Francisco Placencia, 28, of Compton; Antonio DeJesus Santana, 31, of Riverside; Jesus Varela, 28, of Torrance; and Jaime Gomez Lopez, 27, of Compton — were arrested the same day and face the same charge, authorities said.

Federal and state officials also seized about 50,000 fentanyl pills and 45 pounds of methamphetamine from the suspects’ vehicles.

Local and federal authorities have increasingly clamped down on the distribution of opioids such as fentanyl as deaths from the powerful drugs have climbed nationwide.

According to provisional data released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in November, more than 100,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in the 12 months ending in April 2021, an increase of 28.5% from the year before.

“The new data documents that estimated overdose deaths from opioids increased to 75,673 in the 12-month period ending in April 2021, up from 56,064 the year before,” according to the CDC. “Overdose deaths from synthetic opioids (primarily fentanyl) and psychostimulants such as methamphetamine also increased in the 12-month period ending in April 2021.”

Authorities said fentanyl-laced cocaine and fake oxycodone pills fueled the rise in deaths.

In California, the pills are often manufactured in cartel-run chemical labs in Mexico, the DEA says. The blue tablets are commonly stamped “M” on one side and “30″ on the other to look like pharmaceutical oxycodone.

The investigation that led to the Ventura County seizure and arrests began in February after a confidential DEA source told authorities that Diaz was “responsible for coordinating the distribution of bulk amounts of fentanyl pills, multiple-pound quantities of methamphetamine, and multi-kilogram quantities of cocaine” to the Greater Southern California area, according to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California on Thursday.

The source was not identified in court documents, which stated that the source had been providing information and help to local law enforcement and DEA investigators since May 2021.

The source has a prior criminal history, including of possession of a controlled substance, and “is currently providing information and assistance after being charged federally with possessing with intent to distribute a controlled substance,” according to the complaint.

After being instructed by investigators, the source reached out to Diaz on Feb. 6 and told him an uncle was looking for “waters” and “30’s,” slang for meth and M30 fentanyl pills, the complaint stated. The source put Diaz in touch with a second confidential DEA source who posed as the first source’s uncle.

According to court documents, the second source is being paid to help law enforcement and has been working with the DEA since around 2010.

The second source “has been charged but not convicted” with conspiracy, smuggling, violation of entry requirements and battery on or against a spouse, court documents stated.

On Feb. 7 and 8, the second source reached out to Diaz to negotiate a drug deal, the complaint stated. Diaz sent the second source pictures of suspected M30 pills and agreed to sell the source 2,000 of the pills at $1.80 per pill.

The second source gave Diaz the address of a Vons in Fillmore where they agreed to meet for the deal on Feb. 9, the complaint stated.

Diaz later pushed the deal to Feb. 10, stating that he had a doctor’s appointment that conflicted with their original meeting day, according to the complaint. During follow-up communication, Diaz agreed to sell the second source a pound of crystal meth for $1,300 and sent a picture of the drugs.

Before the Feb. 10 drug deal, a detective and DEA special agent met with the second source, whom they searched along with the person’s car, put audio and video recording equipment on the source and gave the source $4,900 to buy the drugs, the complaint stated. They accompanied the second source to the drug deal site, where agents and local investigators set up surveillance.

After the deal, authorities followed Diaz to a barbershop in the 1200 block of South Atlantic Boulevard in East L.A., where he stopped for 45 minutes before heading to Commerce Casino, according to the complaint.

Authorities also debriefed the second source after the deal, recovered the drugs the person bought from Diaz and took back the recording equipment, the complaint stated.

The second source told investigators that Diaz said he could sell the source cocaine, marijuana, meth and pills, according to the complaint.

On Feb. 15, the second source received a call from Diaz at a new phone number, the complaint stated. Diaz told the source that he was still using his old number but preferred to use the new one for future business.

A federal magistrate judge signed a warrant on Feb. 22 giving investigators access to both of Diaz’s cellphone records and authorizing GPS tracking of the devices, according to the complaint.

Authorities started getting GPS data from Diaz’s cellphones the next day, which showed both devices “frequently displayed a location within approximately 500 meters” from Diaz’s home in Bakersfield, the complaint stated.

At their second meeting on Feb. 23 in Thousand Oaks, Diaz sold the source about 3,000 of the counterfeit pills for $5,400, according to the complaint.

The two arranged a third meeting for March 16 in Camarillo where Diaz agreed to sell the source about $236,250 worth of the fake pills and meth, according to the complaint.

Diaz arrived with the six other suspects in three separate vehicles, the complaint stated. All seven were arrested.

Authorities also seized 10 cellphones, including Diaz’s, according to the complaint.

Diaz and the six other defendants made their initial court appearance Thursday, authorities said.

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