Friday, July 02, 2004 Police hobble Elkhart's meth 'elephant' Police hobble Elkhart's meth 'elephant'

July 2, 2004

Police hobble Elkhart's meth 'elephant'
Big seizure, arrest tied to organized crime in Mexico.

Tribune Staff Writer

ELKHART -- In their second swipe at Mexican organized crime in less than a week, local officials arrested a high-level drug supplier Tuesday and broke Elkhart County's record for the amount of methamphetamine seized in a single bust.

With federal help, the county's drug task force found 26 pounds of methamphetamine in an apartment rented by 22-year-old Efren Radillo Diaz after he was arrested late Tuesday, Elkhart County Prosecuting Attorney Curtis Hill announced at a news conference Thursday.

"If methamphetamine in Elkhart County is an elephant, the amount before us here today might represent one foot on that elephant," Hill said, revealing the passion that has fueled a yearlong investigation that is ongoing into Mexican methamphetamine trafficking.

Sold on the street, the drugs would have been worth about $1.2 million, Hill said.

But Diaz's position as an alleged high figure in Mexican drug trafficking, bringing methamphetamine to the county, was equal in importance to the record amount of drugs seized, officials said.

Diaz, who has a $5 million bond on methamphetamine- dealing charges while he sits in the county jail, was arrested just four days after Goshen business owner Jose Mendoza, who is in the county jail on methamphetamine-dealing charges in lieu of a $2 million bond.

Mendoza, too, is a "significant player" in the network that brings Mexican methamphetamine to Elkhart County, Hill said.

About 80 percent of the methamphetamine in Elkhart County comes via Mexican drug-trafficking rings, Bill Wargo, chief investigator at the county prosecuting attorney's office, said in a separate interview.

Hill would not specify how exactly Diaz and Mendoza were linked in transporting this methamphetamine to Elkhart. The Mexican methamphetamine in Elkhart also is shipped to other destinations, including Detroit and Chicago, Hill said.

Mendoza, originally from Mexico, also has two brothers who lived in South Bend and currently are indicted on drug-dealing charges in U.S. Federal District Court. The two are in jail awaiting trial, according to court documents.

Although small, clandestine labs making methamphetamine are on the rise around Indiana and the nation, these labs have not affected Elkhart County as sharply as other places because of the access to ready-made methamphetamine brought into the area by drug cartels from Mexico, Hill said Thursday.

"If we didn't have this stuff coming in, we would probably have more labs," Hill said.

Methamphetamine is a man-made stimulant that is highly addictive and causes highs lasting from eight to 24 hours, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The drug can be injected, snorted or smoked.

The amount of Mexican methamphetamine in Elkhart County distinguishes it from Marshall, Starke and Kosciusko counties, where, authorities say, there is a large problem with clandestine labs producing methamphetamine from household products, including cold medicine and drain cleaner.

Most of the methamphetamine coming into Elkhart is made in large quantities in "superlabs," -- operations capable of producing at least 10 pounds of meth in 24 hours -- in Mexico and the southwestern United States, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Investigators didn't release much personal information about Diaz; they were not even aware of his immigration status Thursday.

Twenty-six pounds of methamphetamine, individually wrapped for sale to lower-level dealers, were found by authorities who also seized a .357-caliber handgun and $2,000 in an Elkhart County apartment rented by Efren Radillo Diaz.

When Diaz was arrested at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday in the 2600 block of South Main Street, he told police that he lived in Yakima, Wash., but also kept an apartment in the North Lake Apartment Homes on County Road 4 in Elkhart.

Before the arrest, officers saw Diaz allegedly make two deliveries of half-pound packages of methamphetamine, Hill said. A DEA agent and a state police officer assisted the Elkhart County Organized Crime/Drug Enforcement Unit with the arrest.

Officers found the methamphetamine in 26 individually wrapped pounds in a hidden compartment in the apartment north of the city.

Officers found a handgun, packaging materials, a cutting agent to dilute the meth's purity and $2,000 in the apartment.

These items covered a table beneath the podium where Hill spoke during the news conference.

"We are not here to pat ourselves on the back," Hill said. "We are here today to demonstrate to this community the magnitude of the methamphetamine monster that has mushroomed over the past several years."

A few criminals blend in

Hill emphasized that only a small number of the local Mexican immigrants are dealing drugs and are responsible for the powerful influx of methamphetamine.

With a Hispanic population of about 15 percent in the city of Elkhart, it's easy for Mexican drug dealers from these trafficking organizations to become part of the human fabric, Hill said.

"Bad people can blend into the community," Hill said.

Carlos Espinoza, a correspondent for La Prensa Hispana, a Spanish language radio station in Goshen, said Mexican immigrants have long struggled with overcoming stereotypes of being drug dealers.

"Sadly it's true; most of the drug dealers in the area come from Mexico," said Espinoza, who immigrated to Goshen six years ago with his wife and three sons.

However, Espinoza was surprised and upset when Mendoza was arrested in Elkhart on June 25 and charged with being a major methamphetamine dealer. Mendoza owned JASSO Fencing Co., which employed between six and 10 people, prosecutors said. Mendoza ran the business from his Goshen home, Wargo said.

Espinoza had hired Mendoza on two occasions earlier this year to do work on his house. He knew of Mendoza through an acquaintance.

"These guys worked fast and did a really good job," he said of Mendoza and his crew.

"This is the land of opportunity," Espinoza said. "You can do anything here legal or illegal. Sadly, people do illegal things. Easy money all the time. It's really sad these things happen to my people."

This was not the first time a business owner was arrested in Elkhart County for allegedly also using the business to sell drugs, Hill said.

In June 2003, a jury found Ralph Romero, who owned Midwest Lowrider car-customizing shops in Elkhart and South Bend, guilty of dealing in methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana.

Investigations into people such as Mendoza present challenges to law enforcement officials because the drug suppliers often speak in code, Hill said. Wargo said the office also lacks Hispanic investigators who can infiltrate drug rings.

And the nature of organized crime makes for complicated webs of characters and sinister activities that reach beyond the jurisdiction of the county prosecutor's office, authorities said.

If officials can't arrest them, the next best thing is to scare the methamphetamine suppliers into other counties, Wargo said.

"If I were one of these guys, I'd get the hell out of Elkhart County," Hill said at the news conference Thursday.


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