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DEA: Three worked for Mexican drug cartel

September 05, 2001|By DARREN SIMON, Staff Writer

The local U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has confirmed allegations that three men arrested on federal charges Aug. 15 were working for the Arellano Felix drug-trafficking organization.

A DEA agent said Tuesday the arrests of Imperial Valley residents Sal Carrillo and Ernest Michael Zabala and San Diego resident Richard Hart Jr. were "significant" because the case involved the Arellano Felix group.

The agent, who asked to remain anonymous, released details about the connection between the three and Mexico's most notorious drug organization.

A federal grand jury has indicted all three men on drug-trafficking charges. Carrillo faces an additional charge related to money laundering, and Zabala — a former U.S. Customs Service inspector — is facing a charge of bribery.


The arrests came following a four-year joint investigation by the DEA and the U.S. Customs Service internal affairs office.

The agent said the arrests do not represent an end to the case, adding "there are numerous other individuals known to be involved in this criminal investigation."

He said some of those involved are in custody on other charges.

Carrillo was arrested at Robinson Ford in Calexico, where he was a car salesman, according to the DEA agent.

The agent alleged Carrillo sold a new pickup to a friend living in Mexico, and Carrillo drove the pickup to the man, whose identity was not released.

The agent said the man to whom Carrillo sold the pickup was connected to the Arellano Felix group and is a fugitive from the DEA. The man is an American citizen who fled to Mexico to avoid arrest.

The grand jury that brought the indictment against Carrillo concluded there was enough evidence to allege Carrillo knew the pickup would be used for criminal activity. The agent said that is the reason the indictment includes a drug charge against Carrillo. The pickup was used to move cocaine into the United States.

The agent alleged Carrillo "did above what a normal car salesman would do in assisting with the purchase of this vehicle to this individual in Mexico."

Carrillo also was charged with money laundering, according to the agent, because he accepted cash in excess of $10,000 for the pickup but did not claim the money in compliance with federal laws.

In addition, Carrillo allegedly structured a payment plan for the pickup "so as not to alert law enforcement."

The agent stressed Robinson Ford has not been implicated in the case, adding there is no reason to think the company knew of Carrillo's actions.

The arrest of Zabala, taken into custody at an employment agency in Brawley, came based on allegations he allowed drugs to move through his checkpoint when he was a U.S. Customs inspector.

The dates the investigation focused on were August 1996 to Sept. 30, 1997.

It is alleged Zabala allowed vehicles — in particular the pickup reportedly sold by Carrillo — to enter the country carrying narcotics and Zabala was compensated for doing so.

The agent declined to say how much Zabala received for his actions or how much cocaine was thought to have passed through Zabala's checkpoint.

At the time of his arrest Zabala was no longer with Customs. The agent declined to say why Zabala had left Customs.

Hart, a cousin of Zabala, was arrested in San Diego, where he resides.

The agent alleged of Hart, "He was the connection between Zabala and the drug-trafficking organization."

Hart, the agent said, was the go-between, communicating directions to Zabala.

The agent alleged all three men, all in custody in San Diego, were tied to the Arellano Felix group whether they knew it or not. All three are facing a motions hearing Sept. 10 in San Diego.

The fugitive to whom Carrillo reportedly sold the pickup turned himself in to the DEA in 1998. That person pleaded guilty to drug charges and is serving a prison sentence.

Staff Writer Darren Simon can be reached at 337-4082.

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