Drug agents bought meth from this ring in Central Valley parking lots. Now 14 are busted

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After a nearly two-year undercover operation, federal drug enforcement agents say they have busted a major Modesto-based methamphetamine ring that was selling multiple pounds of the drugs throughout the Central Valley and Northern California.

The probe, which included wiretaps and an investigation that began in December 2016, resulted in drug trafficking charges filed in federal court in Sacramento against 14 suspects, according to a 38-page criminal complaint unsealed Thursday afternoon.

Nine of the 14 named made initial appearances in court Thursday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah Barnes in Sacramento.

According to an affidavit filed by a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent, two undercover agents infiltrated the organization and made six buys of methamphetamine, beginning with a one-pound purchase in Modesto on Dec. 21, 2016, where an agent handed over $3,500 for the drugs in an AutoZone parking lot.

Subsequent purchases included a one-pound buy on Feb. 2, 2017, for $3,500 in a Denny’s parking lot in Lodi; a $3,200 purchase on March 30, 2017, of a pound at a gas station along Highway 99 in Modesto; and a $3,300 purchase of a pound at the same gas station on June 5, 2017, court documents say.

The purchases continued — at a Costco parking lot in Turlock and a Burger King parking lot in Modesto — along with ground and air surveillance of homes, autos and phones, court records say, and included purchases of methamphetamine that in some cases tested at or near 100 percent purity.

At one point, a suspect spotted surveillance vehicles, leading two men in the case to cancel their phones, court documents say.

The affidavit spells out a series of alleged transactions between suspects that reads like a “Breaking Bad” script, with descriptions of meth being cooked by a “mechanic” and placed inside thermoses until it set and dried.

“Once it has dried and hardened, drug dealers typically break the methamphetamine into chunks that look like crystal shards,” court documents say.

Some of the drugs were produced in the United States — referred to as “gabacha” — while other drugs apparently came in from Mexico, court records say, and suspects used nicknames like “car parts” when talking about their product.

At least eight of the 14 defendants named in the complaint have faced criminal charges previously, including several with extensive criminal backgrounds. Court papers say authorities seized drugs, seven assault rifles and at least two handguns while raiding the suspects’ homes.

The suspects named in the complaint are identified as Pancho “Uncle” LNU (last name unknown) of Modesto; Elias “Pistola” Hernandez Valencia of Madera: Filberto “Fily” Madrigal of Modesto; Luis “Pee We” Armando Rios Garcia of Modesto; Georgina Carrillo Ayala of Modesto; and Hector Gomez-Garcia of Modesto.

Also named were Jose “Canas” Francisco Buenavida of Turlock; Enrique Buenavida of Turlock; Jose Antonio Pantoja Estrada of Ceres; Kelly Duane Hughes of Oakdale; Jerry Curtis Foster of Modesto; Bart Richard Hughes; Jose Manuel Rodriguez; and Roberto Mercado-Rangel. No hometowns were listed for the last three suspects.