WEST CHESTER - Forty-four people were arrested and 12 more are wanted on outstanding warrants in what Chester County authorities dubbed 'Operation Telaraña' - a year-long, multi-agency probe targeting a major cocaine trafficking network with ties to a dangerous Mexican drug cartel.
Law enforcement officials gathered at the Chester County District Attorney's Office Wednesday to announce the arrests in what officials called the largest drug ring prosecution in the county's history.
District Attorney Tom Hogan led a press conference Wednesday morning that included members of local police departments, state police, a regional drug enforcement task force, and federal agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Salvadore Lemus, 65, was arrested on May 1 after a lengthy investigation identified him as the alleged leader of the cocaine trafficking network with ties to the violent Mexican drug cartel, according to police. Authorities said his 23-year-old son, Francisco Lemus, acted as lieutenant. A nephew, Mario Hernandez Garcia, was also arrested.
Both Salvadore and Francisco Lemus are in Chester County Prison on $1 million cash bail.
Hernandez Garcia, another alleged lieutenant in the organization, is also behind bars on $250,000 cash bail. Also arrested was Salvadore Lemus' wife, Jovita Lemus.
Hogan said Salvadore Lemus spent several months in Mexico each year and has ties to the 'La Familia' cartel, one of Mexico's most violent drug trafficking organizations. Investigators eventually concluded the cartel, through Lemus, was not only using Chester County as a shipment point to other areas in the region but was also distributing large quantities of the drug locally.
'We have taken down a Mexican drug cartel that was operating in southern Chester County, distributing cocaine in southern Chester County and around the United States,' Hogan said. 'This is the largest drug prosecution in the history of Chester County.'
Authorities said Salvadore Lemus' network was in the business of distributing cocaine, and lots of it. Investigators determined the organization was capable of selling a kilogram of cocaine a day, but provided a more conservative estimate of about two kilograms a week.
Lemus' network has operated in Chester County for the past 20 years, Hogan said, and investigators estimated that during that time the organization sold and distributed more than $60 million worth of cocaine.
In addition to Lemus' alleged Mexican cartel ties, the operation was also connected to drug trafficking networks in Charlotte, N.C.; Chicago; Houston; and Phoenix, Ariz.
'The Lemus family drug trafficking organization was a long-standing drug trafficking organization in southern Chester County. We picked up significant intelligence about their operations and all of us had taken a shot of them. Chester County Detectives, Pennsylvania State Police, DEA, but they were extremely difficult to get into,' Hogan said, noting the violence associated with cocaine trafficking. 'They come from the Mexican cartels. They will kill you if you cooperate (with authorities). These are groups that kill cops, kill prosecutors, kill judges, and don't think twice about killing civilians.'
Hogan said the investigation also resulted in the seizure of a large amount of cocaine, vehicles, firearms, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash.
'This is big business, and this is why people are at risk during these investigations. The violence that goes along with this type of drug operation is extreme, and we are committed to making sure that the violence in Mexico does not come into southern Chester County,' Hogan said.
The investigation was a lengthy and difficult one that included cooperation between local and state police, the Philadelphia Camden High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force, and the DEA.
Investigators used a combination of undercover work, informants, and surveillance techniques to achieve the arrests, which were made over the last few weeks beginning on May 1.
Local law enforcement officials stressed the importance of the cooperation between law enforcement agencies and said the collaboration was critical to the investigation's success.
'A successful drug investigation of this magnitude is made possible with the cooperation and the support of municipal, state, and federal law enforcement agencies. We want to thank and recognize the contributions of the agencies that dedicated personnel to participate in this investigation,' said Chester County Detectives Chief James Vito.
The investigation remains ongoing as law enforcement continue to track down those who remain at-large. While authorities conceded the operation put only 'a dent' in the region's cocaine trade, officials expressed optimism that the arrests would have a positive impact on the communities in southern Chester County.