On paper, the California companies shipping “sea cucumbers” to Buffalo did a booming business, about $20 million in sales in just two years.
But in a community known more for beek on weck and chicken wings, the sudden popularity of the little known sea mammal struck federal prosecutors as odd.
They now claim to know why: A California-to-Buffalo drug ring with ties to the deadly El Chapo cartel in Mexico and a former Mexican mayor with a history of drug trafficking.
The drugs were stored in insulated containers labeled “sea cucumbers.”
U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. called it the most significant drug prosecution in his 25 years as a federal prosecutor in Buffalo.
“Investigators have concluded this organization was responsible for bringing tons of heroin, fentanyl and cocaine into our community,” Hochul said.
Jose Ruben Gil, the former mayor, is a lead defendant in a new federal prosecution accusing him and 16 others of taking part in a drug network that shipped heroin, fentanyl and cocaine from Mexico to California and eventually to Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Lockport.
Hochul said his estimates on the amount of drugs shipped here is based on the 163 pounds of heroin, fentanyl and cocaine seized during a bust in South Buffalo earlier this year, and also on a “money trail” that indicates the organization made more than $20 million in less than two years.
Investigators said those sales figures are wholesale, not retail, and reflect the work of a major drug distribution network with ties to the Sinaloa Cartel, an international drug trafficking organization based in Mexico and also known as the El Chapo cartel.
“It’s just unbelievable," John Flickinger, resident agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Buffalo, said of the amount of drugs being shipped here. “This is an extremely sophisticated organization.”
Gil, described in a new federal indictment as one of the leaders of the ring, was previously convicted of drug trafficking in New York City. At the time of his previous arrest in 2008, Gil was identified by federal prosecutors in Manhttan as the mayor of Izúcar de Matamoros in Puebla, Mexico and indicated he had been in office only five months.
The indictment also indicates Herman E. Aguirre is a leader of the organization, and Flickinger said he was the organization’s link to the El Chapo cartel.