Nineteen suspects recently were indicted and arrested on federal charges of conspiring to distribute cocaine across Richland, Lexington and surrounding counties in what agencies described as a major bust.
Investigators believe three other people were involved in the drug trafficking, according to a news conference Wednesday with U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles, FBI special agent in charge David A. Thomas and Drug Enforcement Administration special agent in charge Dan Salter. The group regularly was moving 40 kilograms of cocaine each week, officials said.
Drugs and more than 40 guns were confiscated, agents said. The cocaine originated in Mexican cartels, they said. The drug first came into Atlanta, then was moved north to the Midlands for distribution.
The arrests followed months of investigation by local, state and federal law enforcement partners in Aiken, Lexington, Saluda, Sumter, Richland, and Lee counties, officials said.
Local officers first noticed patterns. The FBI and DEA then teamed up with local law enforcement agencies in each county for the operation. Sheriff Leon Lott and Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook represented the Midlands at the news conference.
“This operation, combined with what we’re doing with the city of Columbia – with our gang task force – has made an impact on the gang crimes that we’ve got,” Lott said. “What we’re seeing is almost all of our murders, our shootings, are gang-related.”
But locking drug dealers up isn’t enough to be a success, Lott added – police need the community’s help in fighting drug abuse.
No one from Richland County was charged. Three suspects are from Lexington County:
▪ Marco Antonio Castro, of West Columbia
▪ Javier Toscano-Serrano, of West Columbia
▪ Andre Maurice Hightower, of Lexington