HOUSTON (AP) _ Authorities say smuggling drugs, not carrying passengers was the main focus for five commercial bus companies that were traveling between Mexico and the United States.
A five-year investigation has led to the indictment of 18 people who have been accused of taking part in a scheme to transport cocaine and marijuana in secret compartments aboard buses that ferried passengers between the two countries.
Officials said Wednesday the owners and managers of five bus companies operated their businesses as fronts for transporting drugs from Mexico to various cities in the United States. Several other individuals were hired by the owners and managers of these companies as bus drivers and loaders and delivered the drugs, officials said.
"The main part of this business was to transport drugs and not passengers," said Zoran Yankovich, the special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Houston office.
Authorities identified the five bus companies accused of taking part in the drug smuggling as Transtar, Neptune Tours, Los Primos, USA-Mex and Ameri-Mex.
According to the indictment, the companies have offices in Monterrey, Mexico, Rio Grande City, Roma, San Antonio and Houston.
A telephone number listed for USA-Mex was not working. Representatives with Los Primos did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment. Attempts to reach the other bus companies were unsuccessful as no telephone numbers could immediately be found for their businesses.
Investigators said the drugs were smuggled into the United States from Monterrey, Mexico, and transported north through the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, up through Houston and various cities north, including Dallas, Allentown, Pa., and Joliet, Ill.
U.S. Attorney Don DeGabrielle said the drugs were stored on the buses inside some "not completely undetectable but some very sophisticated compartments," often below where luggage was stowed.
He said the smuggling organization, which began operating in 2001, charged anywhere from $500 per kilogram of cocaine just to get it across the border to as much as $7,000 per kilogram of cocaine to take it as far north as New York City.
"The buses were transporting people as well but they were also transporting narcotics," DeGabrielle said. "That's what made it so successful for a while, their ability to do this relatively undeterred."
Yankovich said at first it was hard to figure out who was smuggling the drugs because anybody, from passengers to drivers to mechanics that worked on the buses, could have been blamed.
"They were secure in the way they did business," he said. "Once we figured out how they were working, we were able to systematically dismantle their plan."
Authorities have arrested nine of the indicted individuals.
The owners and managers of the bus companies have been identified by authorities as: Abel Trevino Jr., 43, of Houston; Oscar Jaime Garcia Prado, 42, from Brookshire; Miguel Montemayor, 39, of Roma; Victor Hinojosa, 41, of Houston; and Eduardo Trevino, 40, of Linares, Mexico.
Abel Trevino, Montemayor and Hinojosa were arrested in Houston on Wednesday.
Those hired as bus drivers and loaders have been identified as: Leticia Enedina Fournier, 58; Guadalupe Karr Cortez, 47, an illegal immigrant; Jesse Trevino, 48; Alejandro Carmargo-Guerra, 59; Victor Rocha, 39, from Dickinson; Enrique Alvaro Saldana, 53, of Roma.
Jesse Trevino, Rocha, Carmargo-Guerra and Cortez were arrested Wednesday.
Those accused of paying the bus companies to transport the drugs were identified as: Guadalupe Castaneda, 46, of Roma; Eduardo Cirilo, 42, of Pharr; Eduardo Salinas, 29, of Mission; Jose Armando Muniz, 33, of Weslaco; Rafael Armando Ramirez, 32, an illegal immigrant from the Houston area; and Luis Laros, 36; and Robert Salazar Rivera, 48, both of Monterrey, Mexico.
Salinas and Cirilo were arrested on Wednesday.
The defendants are each charged as part of a 16-count indictment with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine and marijuana and each faces up to life in prison if convicted. Most of the defendants are also charged with conspiracy to launder drug proceeds. The remaining counts relate to other drug charges.
Officials said none of those arrested have made their initial court appearances. It was not immediately known if any individuals in custody had attorneys.
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.