SAN JOSE -- The arrest of a minor league drug runner in 2012 started an investigative chain that came to a head this week with the arrests of 18 suspects believed to be linked to a major Mexican cartel as well as the seizure of a high-production meth lab.
The joint investigation by the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office and U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency was nicknamed "Operation Five Degrees" in reference to the multiple layers of the drug distribution organization, starting with local dealers and leading up to key cartel operatives with direct ties to Mexico.
Prosecutor Patrick Vanier said the investigation started with a midlevel criminal moving "about a pound or so every month" and led to the capture of a suspected high-ranking cartel member behind millions of dollars in illegal drug trade.
Vanier said when police served a high-risk warrant at the San Jose home of Esdras Avila "Blanco" Carrillo, he tried to snatch an officer's gun while being arrested. Carrillo was booked into Santa Clara County Main Jail on Wednesday, where he remains without bail.
In addition to the arrests, investigators said they discovered the methamphetamine facility -- a lab at a rural farm in Sacramento County code-named "The Store" that refined raw meth sent in from Mexico.
Vanier said the remote Elk Grove lab was the "perfect location for a clandestine meth conversion operation."
"The individuals were refining 50-pound quantities at a time, $500,000 per shipment," Vanier said. "They were doing this every couple of weeks."
Vanier said the meth is turned into its finished crystal form closer to the end of the distribution process to avoid potentially crushing the drug and making it less aesthetically appealing.
Investigators also found a lab producing concentrated cannabis and various street-ready drugs, including meth, heroin, cocaine and marijuana as well as weapons and thousands of dollars in laundered cash.
"Mexican cartels are using Silicon Valley as a major artery for the flow of illegal drugs," said District Attorney Jeff Rosen in a news release.
He said prosecutors are working with law enforcement agencies to "cut off this toxic flood."
"We will track, arrest and prosecute to the fullest extent of the law those who traffic narcotics in our community," Rosen said.
No additional details of the 2012 arrest that led to the larger bust were available and authorities did not specify what cartel is believed to be involved.
However, lead DEA agent Jay Fitzpatrick said the organization "distributed a variety of controlled substances throughout the South Bay and beyond."
Suspects will be arraigned this week, with many facing more than 20 years in prison for charges related to transportation, possession and manufacture of drugs as well as firearms violations. Many have prior convictions and have served decades behind bars, Vanier said.
Contact Eric Kurhi at 408-920-5852. Follow him at Twitter.com/erickurhi.