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Federal, state and local law enforcement agents arrested dozens of reputed drug suppliers and dealers across the Midlands in simultaneous raids that began before dawn Tuesday.
The massive operation — described as one of the largest roundups ever in South Carolina — was aimed at shutting down drug suppliers and street-level dealers supplied with cocaine and marijuana by Mexican cartels. Most suspects are gang members, authorities said.
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Clad in black body armor, some 16 “takedown” teams of 10 or more heavily armed officers from the FBI, the State Law Enforcement Division and city and county law agencies surrounded targeted residences in Richland and Lexington counties.
Mexicans with ties to violent Mexican drug cartels were living illegally in Lexington County, smuggling in some 44 pounds of cocaine a week, U.S. Attorney Walter Wilkins said at a news conference late Tuesday. The cocaine was then distributed throughout the Columbia area, he said.
“We have unveiled a vast conspiracy of high-level drug dealers,” Wilkins said.
Some suspects are members of the Chicago-based gang Folk Nation, Wilkins said.
Others are members of lesser gangs known only in their local neighborhoods, he said.
FBI Special Agent in Charge David Thomas called the roundup the result of “one of the largest gang investigations ever in the history of South Carolina.”
Hundreds of hours of wiretaps, undercover cocaine buys and covert surveillance by an FBI Violent Gang Task Force for more than a year preceded the raids, authorities said.
Wilkins identified the Mexican drug cartels supplying the Lexington County suspects as Las Zetas and Sinaloa, known for violence. The Lexington County “cell” had ties to others in Charlotte, Raleigh and Atlanta, Wilkins said.
Unpublicized raids in Lexington County in March netted 18 suspects — 11 of whom are Mexicans illegally in the United States. Those were the initial arrests, officials said.
The FBI began wiretapping those suspects in September. In all, the agency intercepted communications on 27 telephones, according to a federal affidavit.
Court papers said the FBI was specifically targeting a Mexican drug-trafficking organization that was converting large quantities of cocaine it brought into crack cocaine for distribution in S.C. neighborhoods.
ON THE RAIDS
Tuesday, facing overwhelming force, most suspects surrendered without incident.
Reporters and photographers from The State rode along with officers.
Each raid team was accompanied by dogs that can sniff out drugs or people who might try to hide in a house, as some suspects did. Each team had a battering ram to knock down doors. And each team had a member who ran around the back of buildings to spot anyone who might jump out a rear window.
“You never know how people are going to react,” said First Sgt. Jerry Maldonado, who helps lead the Richland County Sheriff’s Department narcotics division and is an expert with his hand-held steel battering ram.
Suspects were read their legal rights, handcuffed, and loaded into vans. At some houses, women or older children clutched toddlers in diapers as they watched their fathers taken into custody. Neighbors stood silent on porches, eyeing the drama.
In many cases, targets were not at home. Officers moved on to a backup location for the missing suspect, or on to a new suspect.
Some suspects refused to surrender immediately.
At Brook Pines apartments off Broad River Road, a suspect poked his head out the front door, then ducked back inside and locked it. Officers bashed in the door with a battering ram. The man was hiding in a back bedroom with his girlfriend, but officers had no way of knowing what he might do.
“Come out now! Put your hands in the air, man. Put them in the air! Now!” yelled a gun-wielding officer. Eventually, dressed in pajamas and a T-shirt, the man surrendered.
At a house on Mildred Street in North Columbia, officers were about to leave without a suspect when Maldonado spotted some insulation on the floor. Looking up, he saw an attic entrance in the ceiling and yelled for the suspect — whom he correctly guessed was hiding upstairs — to give up. The suspect quickly did, especially after officers told him their dog would go into the attic.
Meanwhile, helicopters and airplanes from SLED and the Richland and Lexington counties sheriffs’ departments were on standby in case any suspect tried to flee.
IN FRONT OF A JUDGE
More than 30 arrested defendants were arraigned Tuesday afternoon before U.S. Magistrate Joseph McCrorey in Columbia.
All, including four females, were shackled. U.S. marshals escorted the suspects into the courtroom in two main groups and seated them in the jury box.
Most defendants indicated they were too poor to afford lawyers. They were told they would be assigned public defenders or other court-appointed attorneys.
Defendants were quiet, though one woman told McCrorey she didn’t understand her charges. A male defendant told the judge he needed dialysis treatments three times a week.
Relatives and friends of defendants packed the courtroom.
Most defendants face charges of conspiracy to distribute 5 kilograms or more of cocaine, 50 grams or more of crack cocaine, and unspecified amounts of marijuana, Assistant U.S. Attorney Stacey Haynes said in unsealing various indictments against the defendants. Most also were indicted on charges of using a telephone to further a drug trafficking conspiracy.
In addition to the conspiracy charges, a number of defendants face charges of possession with intent to distribute 5 or more grams of crack cocaine.
Federal penalties are steep for drug trafficking in larger quantities. The conspiracy charge, for example, carries a prison sentence of 10 years to life and a $4 million fine for someone with no prior felony drug convictions, and a mandatory life sentence and an $8 million fine for those with two or more felony drug convictions, Haynes said.
McCrorey gave secured bonds ranging from $75,000 to $200,000 to some defendants. Haynes recommended bail be denied for others with serious prior records; in those cases, McCrorey scheduled detention hearings for Friday.
One defendant arraigned Tuesday was Travis Gunter, who was detained on a $100,000 secured bond.
Gunter was arrested about 9:45 am. at a single-wide mobile home on a dirt stretch of Sharpes Hill Road near Gaston. Two pit bulls chained to pine trees in the front yard barely reacted as officers surrounded the home.
Gunter, wearing plaid shorts and a T-shirt, opened the door and was arrested without incident. Officers found no weapons or drugs. A boy gave Gunter’s tennis shoes to officers.
Another boy was in the home at the time, along with a woman. A Crown Victoria — a standard police-vehicle model — and a Chevrolet Suburban were parked in back.
Authorities stressed all suspects arrested Tuesday face a mandatory minimum of 20 years in prison and a maximum of life. Prior drug convictions may substantially increase the time in jail.
Authorities declined to estimate what percentage of the large amounts of cocaine that routinely come into the Midlands had been choked off because of the raids.
But the FBI’s Thomas stressed the operation’s significance.
He said law officers across the state have told him gangs that finance their activities with drug sales are their major problem.
“In too many neighborhoods, too many people are threatened by gang violence,” Thomas said.
SLED Director Reggie Lloyd said the action should be replicated elsewhere in the state.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said, “The message we want to send to gang-bangers and drug dealers throughout the Midlands is, ‘We’re going to get you.’”
Another observation came from an exuberant Richland County officer, who exclaimed after one “takedown”: “It’s great to have a bad guy going to jail!”