Federal drug agents have seized cocaine in a variety of designer flavors and arrested three men in Modesto after a 10-month undercover investigation, authorities reported Monday.
The cocaine, in strawberry, lemon, coconut and cinnamon flavors, may be aimed at women and a younger, club-going clientele, said Gordon Taylor, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration office in Sacramento. It costs about twice as much and is less potent, he said, but dealers bank on its novelty and taste to sell the product.
"The Central Valley is the epicenter for this stuff," Taylor said. "It hasn't been seen in significant amounts in other parts of the country. That's why we really need to wrap our arms around it here."
As a result of the investigation, agents seized 7 pounds of cocaine, 1½ pounds of flavored cocaine and more than 2½ pounds of what they suspect is methamphetamine, Taylor said. The cocaine had a street value of about $272,400.
It's the second time in less than a year that officers have seized flavored cocaine. In June, narcotics agents in Yolo County confiscated 3 pounds of straw-berry- and coconut-flavored cocaine and arrested six people in West Sacramento and Stockton. The product has been found along the West Coast and in Canada, but seems to originate in the valley, Taylor said.
The Modesto operation started about 10 months ago when agents said they received information that Gustavo Banuelos, 47, of Modesto was distributing cocaine and methamphetamine around the city. That month, an undercover agent met Banuelos in a bar to buy cocaine, Taylor said. Since then, agents have reported buying more than 4 pounds of cocaine from Banuelos in six meetings.
Regular cocaine cost agents $600 to $700 per ounce, while the flavored product ranged from $1,100 to $1,400, Taylor said.
Thursday, agents said they met Banuelos at Vintage Faire Mall to buy drugs. They tailed him to the meeting and saw a man who later was identified as Samuel Nungaray, 23, of Man-teca following in a vehicle. Nungaray was described in court documents as Banuelos' protection during the transaction.
Agents arrested both men after Banuelos delivered nearly a pound of cocaine, in various flavors, to them, Taylor said. Officers said they searched the men's cars, finding drugs, a digital scale and a loaded pistol in Nungaray's vehicle.
They searched Banuelos' home, in the 200 block of El Vista Avenue, and the home of his alleged supplier, Eduardo Rosillo, 27, in the 2200 block of Northridge Drive. Officers arrested Rosillo. They confiscated drugs and weapons, including a sawed-off rifle, a loaded .38-caliber semiautomatic pistol and three handguns, from the homes.
Banuelos has been charged with distributing at least 500 grams of cocaine, while Rosillo and Nungaray were charged with conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute at least 500 grams of cocaine, according to Taylor. These charges are punishable by five to 40 years' imprisonment, a $2 million fine and at least four years of supervised release. The three had their first appearances in fed-eral court in Sacramento, Banuelos on Monday and the other men Friday.
Agents from the DEA's Sacramento Task Force and the FBI's Sacramento office conducted the operation with help from law enforcement agencies and drug enforcement groups in Sacramento, Modesto and Stanislaus County.
In other operations, Taylor said, people have added flavors by combining drugs with powdered drink mixes commonly found in Mexican grocery stores.
"It's not a simple process, like you just pour it in," he said. "It requires a chemical synthesis."
Bee staff writer Emilie Raguso can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2235.