From a modest home in Chandler, a major drug ring grows, prospers and is dismantled
Beyond the small collection of angels and wind chimes hanging from the porch of a modest Chandler home, 59-year-old Grace Valencia had stashed 31 pounds of black tar heroin, a supply destined for distribution in correctional facilities and East Valley neighborhoods.
By the time she was arrested and charged with nine federal offenses, Grace Valencia and over 40 others were identified by police as members of the Lara-Valencia Syndicate. Five of them were her own sons.
Members of the syndicate included street and prison gang members responsible for distributing illegal drugs - heroin among them - to prison and East Valley communities, according to court documents. In addition to the 31.6 pounds of heroin found in Grace Valencia’s home, investigators also discovered 5.4 pounds of cocaine, a total haul worth about $1.7 million, according to law enforcement.
“I would say in the last couple years it’s (heroin) made a huge rise, especially here in Chandler for the people that aren’t really aware of the drug culture, how it works,” said a Chandler undercover narcotics officer who asked not the be identified. “Especially an area like Chandler, they’re going to be distributed to certain houses we call stash houses and a lot of them are around this area.”
Many Mexican drug trafficking organizations employ relatives and friends, according to a market analysis reports by the Arizona High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. Keeping the organization family-based makes it more difficult for law enforcement to penetrate the organization.
Top law enforcement officials say the Sinaloa Cartel is considered the most powerful Mexican cartel in operation today.
What’s the next step?
Mexican cartels are “criminal entrepreneurs,” stated Elizabeth Kempshall, executive director of the Arizona High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area and a veteran of the Drug Enforcement Agency for nearly 30 years. Kempshall has studied the habits of drug trafficking organizations and watched as Mexican drug traffickers began leveraging America’s prescription drug abuse into a burgeoning heroin market.
“[Cartels] watch trends,” Kempshall explained.
With so much money on the line, traffickers have developed a variety of tricks for ferrying illegal drugs across the border. Non-factory trap doors in vehicles are fairly common.
The use of ultralight aircraft has also increased. Between 2009 and 2010, the number of ultralight aircraft detections by the Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations Center increased over 240 percent in Arizona. That is four times the amount of detected crossings over the Mexico-El Paso border, according to a 2011 report by HIDTA in Arizona.
“About 2007, in Arizona, is when I first started noticing the heroin being seized in our state,” remembered Kempshall. Since the, she said, law enforcement efforts to investigate heroin trafficking operations have increased. There has been a 25 percent increase in investigations between 2012 and 2013 alone, and the first six months of 2014 are on pace to exceed those numbers.
Wire taps and confidential informants allowed law enforcement to build their investigation of Grace Valencia’s family.
Dubbed “Operation Family Tradition,” law enforcement first began their investigation into the Lara-Valencia Syndicate in February 2011. In the months that followed, one of Grace Valencia’s sons, Ricky Paul Valencia, sold heroin to a confidential informant on fifteen different occasions, according to court documents. Between wiretaps and physical evidence, the investigation documented approximately 25 sales in the final two months before the arrests.
Wire taps also allowed investigators to listen in on a series of conversations between Ricky Paul Valencia; his brother, Vincent Lara; and their mother, Grace Valencia. Although incarcerated throughout the course of the investigation, Vincent Lara was able to direct members of the syndicate over the phone to smuggle heroin into Arizona Department of Corrections facilities.
Wire taps also proved helpful in the case of Victor Corral.
As the leader of a drug trafficking organization based in Tucson, Corral coordinated the transportation of $227,000 of drug money in three separate trips over the course of five days. Drug Enforcement Agency officers caught up with $200,000 of the drug money when a Mexican courier attempted to cross the border with the money,as well as with 500 rounds of 0.38 special ammunition.
DEA agents, along with HIDTA and Homeland Security Investigations Tucson, had opened an investigation into the Tucson heroin trafficking cell in January of 2014. Through the use of mobile surveillance and wiretaps, law enforcement officers had monitored Corral’s activities for several months. On June 13, 2014, agents executed a federal search warrant on the residence of another organization courier, Alejandro Lopez. They found 88.88 pounds of white heroin in Lopez’s bedroom closet.
The stash represents only a small portion of what law enforcement agents will collect this year, and the case just one among many heroin investigations in the state of Arizona.
According to the El Paso Intelligence Center’s National Seizure System, there was a 259 percent increase in the amount of heroin seized in Arizona between 2010 and 2013. This is an increase from 180 pounds of heroin in 2010 to a total of 647 pounds in 2013.
“Maricopa County is the distribution hub for the Sinaloa Cartel’s heroin market in the United States. We know this,” said Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery. “They have command and control elements that are operating in Maricopa County as we’re sitting here right now speaking. And that amount of heroin being present in the Phoenix area is consistent with what we know of their operations.”
Law enforcement officials caught up with the Lara-Valencia Syndicate when they intercepted Brenda Calderon delivering drugs to a correctional facility. During an interview following her arrest, Calderon confessed to investigators that she was transporting heroin to the Lewis Prison Complex Facility in Buckeye, Arizona for Vincent Lara and another incarcerated brother, Angel Lara.
Grace Valencia was charged with nine federal offenses ranging from narcotic drug violations to promoting prison contraband, and pled guilty to the transportation or sale of narcotic drugs in return for the dismissal of her eight other charges.
According to data collected for the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reports in 2012, a total of 992 people were arrested in Arizona for the sale or manufacture of opiates, cocaine or their derivatives, including heroin. A total of 2,378 were arrested for possession. People 21 years old or younger accounted for approximately 25 percent of arrests.
After pleading guilty to the transportation of narcotic drugs, Grace Valencia was sentenced with five years of probation and 200 hours of community service because of health issues and the fact that Operation Family Tradition was her first criminal conviction.
The Obama Administration currently advocates a “smart on crime” response to drug-related offenses, rather than a “tough on crime” policy. This means that the goal of drug courts is no longer to lock away drug users, but rather to prevent criminal activity by helping participants recover from substance abuse problems.
“Many people charged with drug-related crimes are low-level, nonviolent offenders afflicted with an underlying substance use disorder who would be better served by treatment than jail time,” explained Sam Schumach, press secretary at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. “Drug courts are an acknowledgement that we cannot incarcerate our way out of our nation’s drug problem.”
Grace Valencia is currently serving her second year of probation. She is responsible for paying fines and fees associated with her case in sum of $1,530, in addition to a monthly payment to the Adult Probation Department for the duration of her sentence. Neither she nor her attorney could be reached for comment.
Her son Ricky Paul Valencia, credited with being the leader of the syndicate, was charged with a total of 12 years of incarceration and fines of over $6,000. Her other two sons associated with the syndicate, Vincent Lara and Daniel Lara, were each sentenced with an additional 11 and 10 years of incarceration, respectively, and fined over $3,000 each.