Authorities break up regional drug ring; 12 arrested

CHRISTIAN WADE/Staff photoFederal, state and local law enforcement officials arrested 12 people on drug and weapons charges Wednesday in what Attorney General Maura Healey described as the "largest takedown of a major opioid-trafficking operation" in the history of her office. Authorities seized more than 24 kilos of fentanyl, heroin and cocaine during raids in Methuen and Lawrence. 

BOSTON — Law enforcement officials have broken up a Merrimack Valley-based narcotics ring, arresting 12 people and seizing sizable quantities of cocaine, heroin and fentanyl.

The arrests, announced Thursday by Attorney General Maura Healey's office, are the result of a two-year investigation targeting narcotics distribution and sales in New England that involved more than 150 local, state and federal law enforcement officials.

Authorities seized more than 24 kilos of narcotics, about $100,000 cash and four handguns during raids Wednesday at 14 undisclosed locations in Methuen and Lawrence.

Healey called the bust the "largest takedown of a major opioid-trafficking operation" in the history of her office. Law enforcement officials used undercover agents and high-tech surveillance techniques to unravel a "sophisticated narcotics operation that spanned the region and was overseen by higher-ups as far away as New Jersey."

"To put this in context, the 24 kilos that we seized represents millions of dollars worth of drugs," Healey told reporters at a briefing. "More importantly, it represents hundreds of thousands of lethal doses of drugs that have kept from affecting communities in our state."

Jon DeLena, associate special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's New England Field Division, said the dismantling of the drug ring will have a measurable impact on the deadly fentanyl trade.

"We have witnessed the destruction that the opioid epidemic has brought to our neighborhoods," he told reporters. "Every time we take fentanyl off the streets, it saves lives."

Methuen police Capt. James Jajuga said the illicit drug trade "has a direct and detrimental impact on countless lives and knows no boundaries — geographic, economic or otherwise."

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid 50 times more potent than heroin and blamed for a majority of the overdose deaths last year in Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire.

More than 2,000 people in Massachusetts died of opioid-related overdoses last year. Fentanyl was detected in toxicology tests in 90% of those cases.

Federal, state and local law enforcement have made several high-profile busts in the Merrimack Valley over the past two years, many of which have involved fentanyl.

In October, dozens of people were arrested on federal drug, weapons and immigration charges after authorities broke up fentanyl-dealing operations in Lawrence, seizing more than 10 kilos of the deadly synthetic opioid — enough to kill half of the state, officials said. The raids arrested at least 50 people — many of whom were living in the country illegally.

The busts come more than a year after federal authorities broke up another Lawrence-based fentanyl ring operating as a dial-up service and selling drugs across the region.

In that case, more than 30 people – including some who were previously deported – were arrested on federal drug, firearm and immigration charges following a yearlong investigation.

Last April, authorities seized more than 32 kilos of fentanyl with an estimated street value of nearly $29 million after a traffic stop in Methuen.

Healey said her office is collaborating with local and federal law enforcement agencies as part of a "fentanyl strike force" that has seized 227 kilos of fentanyl and heroin, 14,000 opioid pills, $6 million in cash and made more than 300 arrests in recent years. The task force is funded, in part, by a $3 million U.S. Department of Justice grant.

"We're dismantling major drug networks and we're taking millions of lethal doses of heroin and fentanyl off the street," she said. "Every drug we take off the street is potentially a life saved."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.

SUSPECTS ARRESTED

Here's a list, from Attorney General Maura Healey's office, of the people arrested:

Ramon Cruz-Gonzalez, 45, of Methuen

Israel Santiago Ortiz (aka "Simpson"), 39, of Methuen

Robinson Adames Abreu (aka "Papa"), 52, of Methuen

Alberto Santana Santos, 36, of Methuen

Omar Acevedo (aka "Prieto"), 37, of Methuen

Jhonny Mota-Rodriguez, 24, of Lawrence

Jose Lugo-Garcia, 21, of Lawrence

Jason Emory, 43, of Lawrence

Cirio Delores Acevedo, 36, of Lawrence

Yeltsin De La Cruz, 28, of Lawrence

Raul Martinez, 32, of Lawrence

Sulerka Mercado, 37, of Methuen