Heroin traffickers disguised as travelers drove an SUV mounted with bicycles and a kayak while smuggling up to $12 million worth of the drug monthly from Mexico to New York, authorities said.
Undercover Nassau County detectives who bought a pound of heroin in Manhasset and Great Neck traced it to the source over the course of an 18-month continuing joint investigation with New York City and federal authorities, prosecutors said. When New Jersey State Police stopped the alleged drug ring’s Dodge Durango on Sept. 23, investigators said they found about 5 kilos of vacuum-packed black tar heroin hidden in the engine block—making it undetectable to drug-sniffing dogs at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“A border patrol dog would not have picked it up, it was so well secreted,” Rick Whelan, chief of the Nassau district attorney’s organized crime bureau, told reporters Thursday during a news conference announcing the bust. “That car blends in. It traveled up from Mexico through California, across the country… to New York. It just looked like a couple of people on vacation.”
Of nine suspects that have been rounded up in what investigators dubbed “Operation Smackdown,” two Queens men were charged in Nassau County court. They include 38-year-old Ajay Carter, aka Jose Zambrano, and 42-year-old Miguel Tormo, who both pleaded not guilty last month to charges of criminal sale of a controlled substance. Their attorneys were not immediately available for comment.
The 24-year-old alleged ringleader, Cesar “Menor” Romero-Astudillo of the Bronx, is accused of ordering two unidentified traffickers to drive the heroin-filled SUV from Mexico to what prosecutors described as a network of drug houses. The truck was taken apart at an Astoria auto body shop, the smuggling compartment would be packed with millions in cash and then the truck would drive back to Mexico, authorities said. Romero-Astudillo also allegedly had drug mules swallow balloons filled with heroin and fly to New York.
Taylor Koss, the Manhattan-based attorney for Romero-Astudillo, who also pleaded not guilty to drug charges last month, said investigators did not find any heroin in his client’s possession and he is still awaiting copies of the wiretap evidence authorities said they used to make their case. He said it was unusual for his client to be charged with operating as a major trafficker “but not have any narcotics attributed to him.” A Manhattan judge ordered he be held without bail and he faces 25 years to life in prison, if convicted.
In the Nassau case, Carter also allegedly sold cocaine, MDMA—aka ecstasy or molly—and anabolic steroids through Craigslist by using code words. Judge Teresa Corrigan set bail for him and Tormo at $5 million bond or $2.5 million cash. Carter faces up to 40 years in prison and Tormo faces up to 20 years in prison, if convicted. They are due back in court on Jan. 8.
Authorities noted the rise in fatal heroin overdoses on LI in recent years was an unintended side effect of the crackdown on prescription drug abuse that made addicts turn to heroin when pill supplies dried up. Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice said: “This case proves that the battle lines in our fight to save lives in the midst of a devastating heroin epidemic don’t end at any border.”