US prosecutors have brought charges against a drug ring linked to Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel that turned western New York into "ground zero" for narcotics trafficking in the state, providing further evidence of the Mexican criminal network's control of the US East Coast heroin trade.
US Attorney William J. Hochul for the Western District of New York announced on August 9 the indictment of 17 individuals on federal drug trafficking and money laundering charges.
Hochul said the drug ring, referred to as the Gil/Aguirre Drug Trafficking Organization, represented "the largest drug trafficking organization ever dismantled" in western New York. He said the group turned the city of Buffalo "into ground zero for fentanyl/heroin trafficking" in New York state.
Between June 2013 and September 2015, the group is estimated to have distributed more than 2,260 kilograms of cocaine, heroin, fentanyl, and marijuana in western New York. During their investigations, officials seized over $2.5 million worth of illegal drugs, including 52.5 kilograms of cocaine, 17.5 kilograms of heroin, and 8.5 kilograms of fentanyl.
The group laundered approximately $20 million in illicit proceeds from western New York to California banks over a one-year period, according to officials.
The drug ring allegedly sourced their drugs from Mexico. According to Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Special Agent in Charge James Hunt: "The Sinaloa Cartel's reach from Mexico into US cities is most evident in this investigation."
US officials pinpointed Herman E. Aguirre, a leader of the organization, as the Sinaloa Cartel link, local media reported.
The group established front companies in California and western New York, including a fake seafood business, and used them to disguise their trafficking operations. Drugs were concealed in containers labeled "sea cucumbers" and sealed with foam or spray insulation to avoid detection. Sea cucumbers are typically used in Chinese cuisine.
InSight Crime Analysis
The tentacles of Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel are known to reach deep into the United States, with Chicago in particular serving as an important drug distribution hub for the criminal network. Indeed, the DEA's 2015 drug assessment emphasized the dominance of the US drug market by Mexican groups, with the Sinaloa Cartel appearing "to be the most active supplier" of wholesale quantities of illicit drugs.
There have also been indications in recent years of the Sinaloa Cartel moving to control the heroin market along the US East Coast -- traditionally dominated by Colombian groups. This case appears to corroborate that trend.
SEE ALSO: Sinaloa Cartel News and Profile
Nonetheless, the choice of packaging drugs as sea cucumbers -- which themselves have been trafficked by Mexican groups to Asia, where they can fetch up to $600 per kilo -- is peculiar, and may have been the group's downfall by drawing undue attention.
"Buffalo is a hot dog and chicken wing kind of town, so these money launderers could have picked any product to report to be selling here in western New York," said Assistant US Attorney Meghan Tokash.
"But they picked a sea cucumber."