Firefighter, pecan farm caught up in NM drug busts

January 27, 2012 - 7:25 PM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Federal authorities said Friday they've taken down two major drug trafficking and money laundering operations in different parts of New Mexico, one involving an Albuquerque firefighter and the other southern New Mexico pecan growers.

Agents have seized caches of drugs, cars, cash, guns and even a tractor from a pecan growing operation near the New Mexico-Texas border.

Federal officials said both busts will make communities safer and help with the effort to shut down distribution networks that funnel marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamines throughout New Mexico and from Mexico to other locations in the United States.

In one case, 15 men living in the Albuquerque area were named in a 29-count federal indictment that was announced Friday by U.S. Attorney Kenneth Gonzales.

"The charges in this indictment are some of the most significant drug and money laundering charges ever filed in the district of New Mexico," Gonzales said.

Ten search warrants were served Thursday and nine of the 15 defendants named in the indictment were arrested. They had their initial court appearances Friday.

Prosecutors said those arrested included Steve Chavez, 32, a seven-year veteran of the Albuquerque Fire Department.

The department said Friday it has not heard from Chavez, who was scheduled to report for duty Saturday morning.

Officials said his future with the department would be decided soon.

"Firefighters stand and fight for what is good and honorable in this world and if these allegations are true, firefighter Steve Chavez has betrayed his profession and his fellow firefighters," Fire Chief James Breen said in a statement.

Mexican nationals Jesus Ramos Castillo and Gabriel Guerra-Gonzalez were already in state custody, and authorities were searching for the four remaining defendants.

The indictment alleges that the men conspired over the past nine months to distribute cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana throughout central and northern New Mexico.

Prosecutors contend that in a two-month period Chavez made cash deposits and withdrawals stemming from the alleged crimes that totaled more than $348,000. Defendant Ramon Gonzalez Jr. was accused of making transactions totaling more than $166,000.

In the other case, authorities arrested nine people, including the owners of a southern New Mexico pecan farm, in connection with a trafficking and money laundering ring that involved cocaine and heroin.

Prosecutors said the owners and operators of Pettit Farms and Nursery in Anthony, N.M., and their two sons were among those arrested Thursday. They were identified as Oscar Portillo Sr., his wife Sandra Portillo and sons Matthew Portillo and Oscar Portillo Jr.

According to a 24-count indictment, the farm was used as a place to store and sell drugs.

A team of federal, state and local law enforcement officers arrested the defendants Thursday and executed four search warrants, including one at the farm and three others at residences in El Paso, Texas.

Federal prosecutors said the Portillos allegedly sold drugs to an undercover agent on five separate occasions.

The indictment claims the couple asked the undercover agent to pay for the drugs with money orders which they subsequently cashed and deposited into bank accounts in the name of the farm. The agent was provided with invoices asserting that the agent had purchased pecan trees.

A message left Friday for the Portillos at the farm's store, the Nutcracker Suite, was not returned.

Officials with the Drug Enforcement Administration said the investigation targeted a ring that agents believed was responsible for the transportation of cocaine and marijuana shipments from Chihuahua, Mexico, to the U.S.

"Organizations such as this one are essential to distribution networks of Mexican suppliers, and the arrests and seizures in this case will affect their ability to conduct business as usual," said DEA Special Agent in Charge Joseph Arabit.

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