(CNSNews.com) - Federal investigators say they have broken up a criminal conspiracy to distribute illegal drugs -- a racket involving street gangs that was run from inside a Tennessee prison.
In total, 37 individuals have been charged in the drug distribution conspiracy that began as early as 2018 and was orchestrated from within the Tennessee state prison system, the acting U.S. attorney for the middle district of Tennessee announced on Wednesday. Other charges resulting from the investigation include kidnapping, money laundering, making threats by electronic communication, and firearms violations.
The suspects are alleged to have ties to MS-13, Sur-13 and other street gangs, said Jerry C. Templet, Jr., the special agent in charge at HSI Nashville.
"This conspiracy, which was orchestrated by an inmate within the state of Tennessee prison system, involved the large-scale distribution of heroin, methamphetamine, fentanyl and cocaine, all dangerous drugs that threaten the safety of our communities," he said.
The alleged leader of the organization, Humberto Morales, aka Pelon, 29, of Columbia, Tennessee, has been incarcerated since 2014.
According to HSI: "Morales routinely obtained contraband cell phones smuggled into the prison where he was housed, which he used, along with encrypted communication services such as WhatsApp, to orchestrate activities of the drug distribution network, order acts of violence against individuals, and direct the flow of cash from drug sales between middle Tennessee and Mexico. Drug proceeds were also used to pay co-conspirators, pay drug shipment expenses, bail and legal services, and purchase firearms."
The indictments and other court documents allege that the organization had ties to MS-13, Sur-13, and other street gangs and distributed tens of thousands of fentanyl-laced pills; multiple kilograms of fentanyl and heroin; over 50 pounds of methamphetamine, which was often 95-99 percent pure (commonly referred to as “ice”); as well as smaller quantities of cocaine and marijuana.
Investigators say the "well-orchestrated conspiracy" is linked to at least one murder, "horrific assaults," and multiple other violent crimes, including the severing of a woman’s hand in November 2019 as punishment for losing drug proceeds.
"During this incident," HSI said, "the woman was kidnapped, driven around Nashville, and then a hatchet was used to chop off one of her hands, before leaving her lying on the street. This incident was recorded on video and sent via encrypted communication on a cell phone. Another incident involved a hitman for the organization who, at the direction of Morales, cut off part of his own pinky finger to prove his continued loyalty to the organization after he lost or stole a small quantity of drugs."
HSI said many of the defendants are now in custody. But Morales' girlfriend and the the "hitman" who cut off part of his finger are believed to be in Mexico.
If convicted, most defendants face a minimum of 10 years in prison; some face up to life in prison.
All defendants not previously convicted are presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.