On the evening of July 31, Metro detectives were conducting an undercover drug investigation of Francisco Zuniga-Leija, whom they were told would receive a shipment of marijuana. They trailed Zuniga-Leija, watching as he met with Antonio Bustamante to pick up two bundles of marijuana in the parking lot of a Bell Road apartment complex.
A short time later, officers stopped Zuniga-Leija in a white Chevrolet Astro van on Interstate 24. A consent search turned up 100 pounds of marijuana. At the same time, detectives with Metro’s Special Investigations Division followed Bustamante to a residence at 4041 Moss Road in Antioch and found another 20 pounds, according to an arrest warrant.
Metro didn’t know at the time that its investigation had “stumbled upon,” according to a federal agent, the target of a multi-agency federal investigation into an alleged Middle Tennessee drug trafficking organization. The feds believe that trafficking organization is tied to Mexico via a small mechanic shop just across the Kentucky state line, as well as through relationships with members of the criminal drug organization Los Zetas’ contingent in McAllen, Texas.
On that same Saturday night, following Zuniga-Leija and Bustamante’s arrests, Kentucky State Police picked up Felipe Garcia-Rodriguez on traffic violations. A warrant was later issued for Garcia-Rodriguez in the Middle District of Tennessee, and he was transferred here as part of the same investigation.
At a preliminary hearing in U.S. District Court on Tuesday, Special Agent Jonathan Hendrix, of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, testified that while he and other drug enforcement agents interviewed Bustamante after his arrest, they revealed that he’d been the subject of a much larger investigation of which Metro detectives were not aware.
“At that point he didn’t really talk a lot,” Hendrix testified. “He was minimizing his role [in the organization], so we decided to let him know that we had been investigating him for months and that Metro SID had just kind of stumbled upon him by accident. But we had been looking at him for a long time.”
Hendrix said Bustamante then acknowledged the organization, identifying other members and saying he took orders from Garcia-Rodriguez. Bustamante told investigators he’d worked for Garcia-Rodriguez over the past year and a half and had received about four loads of marijuana.
Bustamante said Garcia-Rodriguez was the one who ordered the marijuana from Mexico and he himself had mostly handled the money, at one point storing $60,000 in a house at 2912 Mossdale Drive in Antioch.
On Aug. 3, after Bustamante’s arrest, the Metro charges were dismissed at the request of the state and the feds took over, holding him, Zuniga-Leija and Garcia-Rodriguez on charges of conspiracy to distribute more than 100 kilograms of marijuana.
According to an affidavit to establish probable cause signed by Special Agent Stanley Jones of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, the government believes Garcia-Rodriguez oversaw a mechanic shop in Adolphus, Ky., where workers installed concealed compartments in vehicles to smuggle drugs to the U.S. and guns to Mexico.
Garcia-Rodriguez would tell Bustamante where to pick up the marijuana, and Bustamante — who operated only in this region — would deliver money back to him for shipment to Mexico.
Much of the affidavit’s summary of the investigation from February 2009 to last month is based on information provided by confidential sources, something not uncommon in the early stages of such a case, said Larry Arnkoff, the attorney appointed to represent Bustamante.
The government cites three confidential sources — as well as surveillance, controlled drug buys and recorded conversations — in the affidavit as providing various information on claims Bustamante’s group smuggled “thousands” of dollars in drug money and guns to Mexico. The affidavit, again through sources, also links to the organization some 1,300 pounds of marijuana seized in Nashville by the 20th Judicial Drug Task Force on Feb. 13, 2009.
During the hearing last week, Arnkoff questioned why the confidential sources felt compelled to supply information, wondering aloud whether they volunteered it or were trading information for a possible break in the justice system. Hendrix said only one source he knew of had been involved in illegal activity prior to providing information to the feds.
As Hendrix later testified, Jones led an interview with Garcia-Rodriguez after his arrest in which the suspect said his role was to coordinate marijuana shipments from Mexico, typically receiving one or two shipments a year of about 600 to 650 pounds each. From those shipments, Garcia-Rodriguez allegedly told agents, the group would sell marijuana by the pound for $950 to $975, but due to the poor economy only made about $50 on the pound.
“More than likely the government is going to take it before the grand jury and indict these gentlemen anyhow,” Arnkoff said.
Both the MNPD and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Tennessee declined to comment on the open cases.