TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement held a news conference in Tampa to announce the “shutdown of a massive fentanyl trafficking operation”, according to the attorney general’s office.
Moody described the announcement as a “remarkable result” of cooperation between state and federal law enforcement agencies. The attorney general’s office said the amount of fentanyl seized, 48 pounds, was enough to kill half of the state of Florida.
“As many of you know, here in Florida, as in every other state across our nation, we have been faced with the frightening challenge of fentanyl,” Moody said. “Fentanyl is a highly potent, deadly drug that is flooding into our country, resulting in the loss of life of over 107,000 died in our last yearly count. Thousands here in Florida, the majority of those to fentanyl. That is why efforts by law enforcement to combat this overwhelming tide of deadly poison in our states is so needed. that’s why today’s announcement is a source of pride for those who have been working so hard in Florida to save lives.”
Moody said it was important the message get out to Floridians to understand how deadly fentanyl is, and that the drug is being “pushed into our communities” in new ways, with “drug traffickers even target[ing] the most vulnerable and youngest” by disguising the drug as candy.
“They are even taking fentanyl and putting it into the packaging of traditional candies that my children and I’m sure many children in the state so often enjoy,” Moody said. “And that is terrifying.”
The attorney general said a “massive, violent gang operation” had been moving “unfathomable amounts of fentanyl throughout Florida.” State prosecutors were working on the cases now, with 25 defendants already charged.
The Florida Attorney General’s Office later released a group photo of the 25 defendants, including one still on the run.
“Many of whom are linked to Mexican drug cartels,” Moody said. “This isn’t an anomaly. I wish today’s announcement was a rare occurrence, but if you look back a couple of months, you will see that throughout Florida we have been announcing historic seizures of fentanyl, and not just fentanyl alone, but that deadly drug laced into more traditional illicit substances. Many who die from fentanyl will never know they ingested this poison.”
Moody said that since June, state law enforcement had seized nearly 35 pounds of fentanyl, or “enough to kill 66 out of 67 counties of population here in Florida, in just a few months. Two milligrams is enough to kill an individual.”
She said that the state recognized law enforcement officers in Florida had been “dealing with a lot” and praising their work to assist in Hurricane Ian recovery, as well as mourning officers killed in the line of duty, mentioning Polk County Deputy Blane Lane, who was honored in a memorial Tuesday.
“The fentanyl crisis presents a new challenge. They know, if they don’t get this off the street, it will, it’s not if, it will kill Floridians,” Moody said. “And not only are they working to take it off the streets, they themselves when they come in contact with it have overdosed. We have seen routine incidents of occurrences in Florida where those rushing to help those who overdosed have experienced the same symptoms.”
Moody said the danger was why she had pushed with other Attorney Generals, in a bipartisan manner, for the Biden administration to secure the border, saying Mexican drug cartels “do not value human life.”
“Human life is an expense on their balance sheet, on their income statement, human life has no meaning to them,” Moody said. “They care about profit, and they care about power. The folks that helped work on this case today understand that, so we have to continue to support the men and women of law enforcement who are not only bravely facing the challenges historically they have signed up to face, but have now found themselves in a crisis not of their own doing but that has been pushed upon them by the surge of fentanyl into this country and into the state of Florida. The amounts we are seeing, and the number of Floridians it can kill is astonishing.”
Moody said the drug was likely being stockpiled and could be used for “mass-casualty events” and commended the Federal Drug Enforcement Agency for calling it the deadliest drug they’ve ever seen and warning the public. She called on officials working with President Joe Biden to enforce public safety immigration laws and secure the border.
After Moody spoke, Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Mark Glass reiterated the AG’s warning on fentanyl’s risks.
“The suspects you see here today are charged with more than 60 first-degree felonies of drug trafficking and violent crime,” Glass said. “Everything from conspiracy to commit murder to directing criminal gangs, to conspiracy to commit aggravated battery on prison inmates, racketeering, and trafficking controlled substances. The gang’s kingpin is Carlos Martinez, who is serving a 30-year sentence for attempted murder. From inside a correctional institution, he and his co-conspirators were able to move large shipments of narcotics and this atrocious drug into the state of Florida, and get it distributed.”
Glass said the effort involved violence in “many instances” in and out of prison to “enhance their drug trafficking operation.”
“In some cases, Martinez would direct gang members to hurt other gang members who he felt disrespected him. There is no question that this was a very dangerous gang,” Glass said. “Investigators uncovered dozens of fire arms to be used by the SUR 13 members, and to be sold on the black market. In all, 45 guns were recovered. To underscore this organization, more than $150,000 in cash was also seized. As part of this case, agents also seized 48 pounds, you just heard the attorney general about how much could kill you, 48 pounds of fentanyl, and 15,000 fentanyl pills to be distributed in the state.”
Glass said more than 350 pounds of methamphetamine, one pound of heroin, and a half pound of morphine, in addition to the weapons and fentanyl.
“There’s no doubt that the work of our FDLE agents, in partnership with deputies in the Hendry County Sheriff’s Office, HSI investigations, FBI, and Attorney General Moody’s office of statewide prosecution saved countless lives in Florida and most likely in the United States,” Glass said. He said Hendry County Sheriff Steve Whidden’s efforts helped them infiltrate the gang’s operation, helping them break the case.
Whidden thanked his narcotics unit for their “outstanding” work and that when his investigators realized the far reach of the operation, they immediately reached out to FDLE, who “jumped right in” to help. He also thanked Moody for her assistance.
“The amount of narcotics and the uptick we’ve seen over the last two years is a direct result of this open border,” Whidden said. “Like the attorney general said, it needs to stop. The president needs to get on the stick and do what it takes to secure our border. Because if it’s not secure, this is not going to stop and more people are going to die.”
He said Florida was lucky to have a governor like Ron DeSantis and an AG like Moody who were willing to “fight the fight” and keep Floridians safe.
“Some people talk about law and order and protecting our citizens, and some people show it,” Whidden said, thanking Moody again.
After Whidden, FDLE Special Agent in Charge, Eli Lawson from Fort Myers, spoke.
The investigation “began in the summer of 2020, when FDLE agents received tips and information about SUR 13 and a large drug trafficking network operating in Southwest Florida,” Lawson said. “Following those tips that we received, we quickly discovered an extensive criminal network responsible for distributing large quantities of fentanyl and methamphetamine to communities in Southwest Florida and here in Central Florida.”
Lawson said the gang was a national organization, which had started in Southern California in the 1960s and 1970s.
“Their members operate in prison walls and outside of them, living in our communities and our neighborhoods. As you can see from the board, 24 suspects were arrested, but one gang member remains at large,” Lawson said.
Lawson said the final defendant was an individual from Kissimme, Fla., Efren Berumen. He asked that anyone with information about his whereabouts get in contact with FDLE. Moody returned to the podium after Lawson to provide more remarks on the case.
“Sheriff Whidden said how proud he was of his deputies there, they have a small narcotics unit, it’s a small department,” Moody said. “This is such a crisis, there is so much fentanyl and other drugs, you heard 380 pounds of methamphetamine, not to mention the morphine, heroin, cocaine, that was also seized, the challenges that are small sheriffs departments face, they are now being forced to respond to this fentanyl crisis.”
She said they were performing admirably but that it was not something that could have been planned for even five years ago.
“This is a challenge for Florida, one that we intend to meet aggressively and head on, and we will continue to do so,” Moody said.
During a question and answer session afterward, Lawson said that most of the suspects pictured were from Southwest Florida, but that others had come from areas in Tampa Bay and even Volusia County. The case spanned two years, according to Lawson, starting with tips of street-level drug distribution, and midlevel narcotics, in Fort Myers, working with the suspects pictured at the news conference.
In terms of volume, “this is not just an average seizure,” Lawson said. “Nearly 50 pounds is a significant interruption in the flow of narcotics, this particular group controlled the flow of narcotics for this gang into the state of Florida. The sheer volume speaks to the extraordinary efforts that went into it, that definitely dismantled them and prevented more narcotics from flowing into it.” He said the work was not done and that law enforcement was continuing its fight to stop the drugs coming in.
He said most of the suspects pictured at the event were not serving prison terms at this time, though Martinez was an inmate still.
“This investigation has not stopped at this point, and we are continuing to this day and will for months ahead,” Lawson said.
Moody came back, saying that they were seeing the amount of fentanyl “rise sharply.”
“There is always the challenge that as these continue to be announced, that people will understand the magnitude of the volume or the crisis that we are now in this moment experiencing,” Moody said. “The alarming rate it has been showing up in our country and in our states within the last year, particularly in the last three months, there was one month where the increase in seizures at the border of fentanyl could have killed the whole U.S. population. So right now, with the amounts we are seeing couple with the potency of the drug, that is the challenge we’re facing in this moment.”
Moody said that people had trouble understanding what the amounts actually meant.
“50 pounds of fentanyl. That could kill half of Florida’s population. That’s an incredibly large seizure, that’s a historic seizure,” Moody said. “And just in the last couple of months, we seized enough to kill our entire state. That has not happened, we have only been facing this within the last year and a half. It directly coincides and stems from the lax, wide open border. There’s a reason we have public safety immigration laws.”
The attorney general said she was fighting in court to have the federal government secure the border due to the risks, and other immigration security issues.
This is a developing story. Stay up to date on the latest from News Channel 8 on-air and on the go with the free WFLA News Channel 8 mobile app.