Like a good crime novel, the prosecution of Jose Ruben Gil and 15 others has all the elements to keep you reading.
First, there's the link to the deadly El Chapo drug cartel in Mexico.
Second is the way Gil, a former Mexican mayor, and his co-defendants allegedly shipped the drugs from California to Buffalo — in boxes labeled "sea cucumbers."
And finally, there's the amount of drugs — tons of fentanyl, heroin and cocaine — that the government claims found its way here.
A new grand jury indictment levies new charges against the defendants and, for the first time, makes it clear the large amount of fentanyl involved in the case could lead to mandatory prison sentences.
"This new indictment acknowledges the mandatory minimum sentences associated with fentanyl," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Meghan A. Tokash.
Prosecutors point to the amount of drugs at the heart of the case to suggest it is one of the most significant local drug prosecutions of the past 25 years.
In court papers, the government estimates the organization did about $20 million in sales in just two years.
The estimate is based on the 163 pounds of heroin, fentanyl and cocaine seized during a bust in South Buffalo two years ago, and also on paper records tracking the group's illegal activity.
Investigators from the Drug Enforcement Administration said the $20 million sales figure is wholesale, not retail, and reflects the work of a major drug distribution network with ties to the Sinaloa Cartel, an international drug trafficking organization also known as the El Chapo cartel.
Herman E. Aguirre, one of the defendants in the case, is accused of being the organization’s link to the cartel.
Prosecutors said the large-scale drug trafficking came to their attention, in part, because of the large number of "sea cucumbers" being shipped from California to Buffalo.
Sea cucumbers are a form of marine life found on the ocean floor, similar to starfish or sea urchins.
What investigators soon learned is that the sea cucumber containers really housed fentanyl, heroin and cocaine, and that eventually led them to a California-to-Buffalo drug ring with ties to El Chapo.
Several defense attorneys pointed to the new indictment, the third one in this case, and suggested it will unfairly extend the period the defendants have to wait for a trial.
"My client has been in custody for more than two years," said defense lawyer Michael S. Deal.
Several lawyers asked U.S. Magistrate Judge H. Kenneth Schroeder Jr. to release their clients on bail and pointed to the delays created by the new indictment's increased emphasis on the role of fentanyl.
"Suddenly, we're in a fentanyl indictment with staggering sentencing guidelines," said defense lawyer Michael J. Stachowski.
Like Aguirre, Gil is described by prosecutors as one of the leaders of the ring. He was previously convicted of drug trafficking in New York City and, at the time of his arrest in 2008, was identified by federal prosecutors in Manhattan as the mayor of Izúcar de Matamoros in Puebla, Mexico.
He had been mayor only five months when he was arrested.