Shipments of scrap metal were used to disguise drug trafficking

Updated Feb 18, 2024
Fire extinguishers used to smuggle drugs
U.S. Department of Justice

Federal officials recently busted a drug smuggling ring that used trucks loaded with scrap metal to move narcotics from Mexico into the U.S. 

Nine defendants were arrested during law enforcement operations that began Feb. 8 and continued through Monday, Feb.12. One defendant was already in state custody. Seven additional defendants are fugitives believed to be in Mexico.

An arraignment was scheduled for Thursday afternoon, Feb. 15, for the final defendant arrested on a federal grand jury indictment that alleges a scheme to smuggle fentanyl, methamphetamine, and heroin from Mexico into the United States. The narcotics allegedly were packed into fire extinguishers and concealed in scrap metal loads.

The drug trafficking organization used semi-trucks to import fire extinguishers filled with drugs across the United States-Mexico border, according to court documents. During the two-year investigation, authorities made 13 seizures that yielded approximately 680,992 fentanyl pills, 3 kilograms of fentanyl powder, 17 kilograms of heroin, and 10,418 pills containing methamphetamine.

The 15-count indictment unsealed Feb. 8 charges various defendants in drug trafficking counts and a money laundering conspiracy. The nine defendants who were arrested are:

  • Oscar Ahumada Leyva, 43, of Mexico;
  • Miguel Antonio Rabago Valenzuela, 42, of Mexico;
  • Gustavo Rivero Rodriguez, 39, of Mexico;
  • Carlos Espinoza, 38, of Alhambra;
  • Erick Roque Angeles, 39, of Fontana;
  • David Sanchez Balderas, 26, of Denver;
  • Fernando Salgado, 36, of Riverside;
  • Rocio Guadalupe Acevedo Tonche, 32, of Ontario; and
  • Efren Quibrera Espinoza, 29, of Cudahy.

Six of the defendants were taken into custody in the Los Angeles and Inland Empire regions. Five of those defendants have been arraigned, entered not guilty pleas, and ordered to stand trial on April 2. Erick Roque Angeles was scheduled to be arraigned in the United States District Court in Los Angeles Thursday. A tenth defendant – Toniel Baez-Duarte, 33, of Apple Valley, California – was already in state custody.

According to a warrant to search a phone seized when Carlos Espinoza was arrested last week, the investigation focused on Carin Trucking, a San Diego-based outfit owned by Leyva that operated at least six semi-trucks that regularly entered the United States from Mexico to deliver suspected narcotics to the Los Angeles area. The drugs, including counterfeit pills containing fentanyl, were concealed in fire extinguishers initially disguised as scrap metal and later in extinguishers that appeared legitimate, according to the search warrant filed Monday.

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“Investigators have observed multiple drug transactions involving truck drivers and their semi-trucks,” according to the affidavit in support of the search warrant. “The truck driver would drive into the United States from Mexico, and cross the border usually carrying a load of scrap metal, and concealed inside will be a scrap metal fire extinguisher containing drugs. The truck driver would then make his way up to Los Angeles, to meet a courier, who would pick up the drug packed fire extinguishers for further distribution.”

The indictment alleges two narcotics conspiracies and 12 drug possession offenses, each of which carry a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in federal prison and a potential life sentence. Count 15, which alleges a money laundering conspiracy, carries a statutory maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

An indictment contains allegations that a defendant has committed a crime. Every defendant is presumed to be innocent until and unless proven guilty in court, according to a statement from federal authorities.