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How Riverside County became America's drug pipeline


Brett Kelman, The Desert Sun, and Brad Heath, USA TODAY

INDIO, Calif. – The black plastic pipe lay under the overpass, resting against the center median of Interstate 10, one of the nation’s busiest highways. It was the quintessential pipe bomb, about a foot long and an inch-and-a-half wide, with caps on both ends. No one knew where it had come from.

Alarmed, a construction worker called the cops, who sent a bomb squad. They wheeled a bomb-disposal robot toward the pipe, pointing a shotgun-like weapon designed to destroy any explosives inside.

The robot fired, and tin and copper flak perforated the pipe like buckshot. Fine white powder sprinkled out of the tiny holes. The robot eased closer, eyeing the powder with a camera.

An example of powdered methamphetamine, much like was found in the black pipe on Interstate 10.
(Photo: Photo provided by 
the Drug Enforcement Administration)

“My guys are all cops, and they could tell it wasn’t explosives,” said Sgt. Bob Epps, the bomb squad supervisor. “They knew then it was probably dope.”

This black pipe, which shut down I-10 for about 30 minutes on Aug. 18, was filed with a half-pound of methamphetamine, and had almost certainly fallen off an eastbound truck smuggling narcotics. This was a rare moment when Riverside County’s secret drug pipeline — a cross-country conduit for tons of meth and heroin — accidentally exposed itself to the outside world.

Riverside County has become the single largest drug trafficking distribution center in the United States, built on a web of highways, nondescript suburbia and empty desert, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Over a three-year period that ended in September, the Riverside DEA Office, which also covers San Bernardino County, has seized about 6,500 pounds of meth and 770 pounds of heroin. That’s nearly one fourth as much meth, and one tenth as much heroin, as was seized by the entire DEA – nationwide – from 2012 to 2014.

The statistics are not perfectly comparable because the Riverside seizure totals were provided only by fiscal year and national totals were provided only by calendar year. However, even raw numbers reveal Riverside County as a centerpiece in U.S. drug trafficking, rivaling the nation’s largest cities.


DEA officials say the smuggled narcotics flow from Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel through Riverside County stash houses en route to seller’s markets in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Canada. Drug profits, often in bales of cash, follow the same path back to Mexico.

The end result is an invisible network, valued in the billions of dollars, that weaves through the county, hidden within the same shipping and trucking lanes that carry agriculture and commercial goods from Mexico.

Business is booming.

“We are almost like the Costco warehouse of narcotics dealers, shipping this poison across the country,” said Frank Pepper, assistant special agent in charge of the Riverside DEA Office. “The amounts we are seeing are unfortunately on the rise, but we're also seizing more, getting more of this poison off the streets.”

This composite image shows white powder heroin, top, and black tar heroin, bottom. DEA officials say Riverside County has seen a surge of white powder heroin seizures, which is unusual.
(Photo: Photos provided by the Drug Enforcement Administration)

Over the past three years, the Riverside Office has seen a significant rise in meth and heroin trafficking, according to seizure statistics provided to The Desert Sun. Meth seizures rose from 1,567 pounds in fiscal year 2013 to 2,546 pounds in fiscal year 2015, and heroin rose from 150 pounds to 395 pounds in the same timeframe. Seized heroin has been mostly white powder, rather than black tar, and officials believe these shipments are intended for East Coast markets, where white powder heroin is more popular.

The Riverside office also seized nearly $47 million in cash, vehicles and guns during that three-year span.

And these figures still don't account for all the drugs and cash seized in Riverside County. Absent from these totals are countless seizures made by Border Patrol, local police and DEA agents from Los Angeles, San Diego and the East Coast, which routinely trace the source of their drugs back to Riverside County.

“If they push an investigation far enough, there is an excellent chance it’s going to make it back here,”   said Tim Massino, a DEA spokesman.

“It is not uncommon for a case that was initiated across the country – say in Chicago, Atlanta or Little Rock – to ultimately lead back to this area.”

Massino cited Little Rock just as an example, but he couldn’t have picked a truer one.

In April, Arkansas State Police found 275 pounds of meth – worth an estimated $10 million – hidden in a semi-truck on Interstate 40, about 10 miles east of Little Rock.

Javier Leon-Garcia
(Photo: Arkansas State Police)

Troopers championed the case as the biggest meth bust in the history of Arkansas, but the truck had come from Riverside County. The driver was Javier Leon-Garcia, 53, a Moreno Valley resident who police say drove the drugs cross-country before being snagged.

If Leon-Garcia’s truck had been stopped here, instead, the case would have been far less remarkable.

Just last month, authorities arrested another Moreno Valley truck driver, Ricardo Benitez-Serrano, a fugitive who had been caught hauling $2.9 million in suspected drug profits in 2013 and 305 pounds of cocaine in 2014.

 Last year, four Coachella men were indicted as part of a conspiracy to move millions in Sinaloa drug profits from Canada to Mexico. Two years before that, Riverside resident Hiram Granados Alvarez was sentenced to 27 years in prison for attempting to ship 220 pounds of cocaine to a drug ring in Baltimore.

Nearly 20 tons of weed, cocaine and heroin were found

And finally, back in 2010, a DEA-led task force caught a semi-truck on Interstate-10, headed from the border to a warehouse in either Riverside County or San Bernardino County. Inside was a mountain of drugs – 2,650 pounds of cocaine, 66 pounds of heroin and 19 tons of marijuana, stacked on pallets.

These pallets of cocaine were seized from a semi truck

A look inside one of the pallets of cocaine, found

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