Authorities busted a cartel-affiliated heroin and methamphetamine ring with supply routes to Long Island, making three arrests and netting nearly $13 million worth of elaborately hidden drugs, officials said Wednesday.
In two Manhattan apartments, authorities on Monday seized $12 million worth of heroin -- roughly 44 pounds -- and about $500,000 worth of crystal meth, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Traffickers stashed bricks of heroin in secret compartments behind walls accessed through removable panels in bedroom and bathroom cabinets. Other drugs were found tucked under a mattress and inside a television stand, officials said.
The wholesale operation planned to deliver the drugs to mills for packaging and street distribution, the DEA said.
DEA: Bust a 'significant hit'
The seized heroin -- intended for distribution in Nassau and Suffolk, New York City, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and elsewhere -- was enough to fill about 600,000 glassine bags sold on the streets, authorities said.
Authorities believe the drugs were smuggled from Mexico -- the primary source of Long Island heroin -- with ties to one of that country's major cartels, according to a law enforcement source. Profits from sale of the drugs would likely have flowed back across the border, the source said.
The most notorious and feared Mexican drug organizations -- including the Sinaloa, Gulf and Juarez cartels -- are among the primary traffickers of heroin sold in New York State, authorities said.
"This is a very significant hit," said James Hunt, acting head of the DEA's New York office. "It's going to put a dent in the traffickers' money flow."
Pablo Paulino, 36, of Manhattan; Pedro Abreu, 55, of the Bronx; and Janeison Garcia 28, of Orlando, Fla., were arrested Monday night and charged with multiple counts of criminal possession of a controlled substance. More charges could be filed, officials said.
The men were arraigned Tuesday in Manhattan Criminal Court. Abreu and Paulino, who lives in the building where the drugs were found, are being held without bail. Bail for Garcia was set at $250,000.
Their lawyers could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
LI authorities help with case
The investigation originated with the DEA's Long Island division, which is battling a scourge of heroin abuse because of increased demand, an abundance of high-quality product flowing into the United States through Mexico, and low wholesale prices.
The arrests followed a long-term investigation and several days of continuous surveillance by authorities at a Washington Heights apartment building at 111 Wadsworth Ave.
There, investigators and agents saw the suspects repeatedly entering and leaving while carrying bags, officials said.
Inside Apt. 21E, authorities found a safe holding $120,000 in cash. A hiding place behind a bathroom wall, accessed by removing a tiled panel, was filled with 17 pounds of meth, officials said. In addition, investigators found evidence of hollowed-out women's shoes, commonly used to conceal drugs. Numerous cellphones and "drug ledgers" were also seized, officials said.
In Apt. 10E in the same building, authorities found a sophisticated "countersurveillance" system, including two pinhole cameras concealed in the frame of the apartment's front door, officials said.
The cameras recorded activity in the public hallway and fed live video to a monitor mounted above the door inside the apartment, as well as to a DVR that recorded the feed.
In that apartment, authorities said, they found more than 24 pounds of heroin in brick form. Some of the stash was hidden in a wall behind a kitchen cabinet, reached via a sliding rear panel, officials said. Another 11 pounds of heroin were found between a mattress and box spring in a bedroom, officials said. A TV stand with storage components in the living room contained more heroin, officials said.
Behind a bathroom wall, agents discovered a trap that could be accessed by removing the medicine cabinet. Inside, investigators recovered two bags containing more than 5 pounds of heroin, authorities said.
The operation was carried out by Long Island DEA agents and New York City's special narcotics prosecutor with the assistance of Nassau and Suffolk authorities. "This case follows a pattern we've seen of heroin distribution networks setting up shop at locations that provide ready access to potential users in Long Island, upstate New York and throughout the Northeast," said Bridget Brennan, the narcotics prosecutor.
The heroin that makes it to market in the region is taking lives at an alarming pace, rivaling the overdose epidemics of the 1970s and early '80s.
More than 220 heroin overdose deaths on Long Island have occurred over the past two years -- the most ever recorded.