TYLER, TX (The Tyler Morning Telegraph) – Three people have been arrested, and 10 more suspects are sought in connection with a widespread East Texas drug trafficking operation with ties to a Mexican drug cartel.
Smith County Sheriff Larry Smith said during a Tuesday press conference that law enforcement officials can trace more than a dozen illegal marijuana grows in the region to the Los Zetas cartel.
“It’s not just marijuana … they’re associated with stolen firearms, they are associated with methamphetamine distribution and things of that nature,” Smith said. “It’s going to stop here in East Texas.”
Law enforcement officials identified Eduardo Ramirez Pineda as a leader of the local drug trafficking organization. Pineda oversaw the daily operations of at least 15 marijuana cultivation sites in East Texas, officials said. Pineda and Benito Duarte Ramirez are considered fugitives and are among the 10 suspects being sought in connection to the crime.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement has detained four others who Smith said were associates of those involved with the operation.
The 15 marijuana cultivation sites span at least nine East Texas counties including Smith. Federal State and local law enforcement agencies partnered in this investigation which lasted from July 2015 to December 2016.
From July 2015 to November 2016 officials seized 77,000 marijuana plants from 15 sites. Smith said those plants have an estimated street value of more than $101 million.
Smith said in East Texas the cartel often identifies wooded areas in remote locations where they can grow marijuana.
“They will stay out there in a tent and just have their food and stuff brought to them,” Smith said.
He added that from now until summer, as the weather starts to warm up, landowners should walk their land and report any strange activity.
Multiple state, local and federal law enforcement agencies have worked together to target the marijuana grows since they began popping up in East Texas from July 2015 to October 2016.
Speaking at Tuesday’s press conference, Smith County District Attorney Matt Bingham commended all the agencies that have worked to eradicate the marijuana grow operations in Smith County and across East Texas. He added he expects the punishment for those involved to be substantial.
“These cartels, or these people that generate these fields will stay where you let them stay … (law enforcement have) gone out there and been very proactive in saying they are not going to allow it in their community.”