After conducting surveillance for more than a month, investigators busted the biggest synthetic marijuana supplier in western Hidalgo County during April, according to court records.
The Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office seized nearly 19 pounds of synthetic marijuana on April 26, when investigators raided drug houses in McAllen, Mission and Palmview.
Commonly called “spice,” synthetic marijuana is falsely marketed as a safe, legal alternative to marijuana. It’s popular among teenagers, who sometimes buy the drug at unscrupulous smoke shops.
Depending on the chemicals involved, synthetic marijuana “may affect the brain much more powerfully than marijuana; their actual effects can be unpredictable and, in some cases, more dangerous or even life-threatening,” according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Guerra said reports about teenagers who suffered serious medical problems after trying synthetic marijuana prompted the Sheriff’s Office to crack down.
Investigators went to smoke shops and warned proprietors not to sell synthetic marijuana. Most smoke shops quickly complied.
When the synthetic marijuana market went underground, the Sheriff’s Office worked with the McAllen Police Department, U.S. Border Patrol and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to track down major suppliers.
Investigators sifted through tips, intelligence reports and other information before targeting two men: Juan Antonio Garza, 43, of Mission, and Cruz Felipe De La Garza, 30, a former McAllen Independent School District employee.
The Sheriff’s Office Special Operations Division spent more than a month conducting surveillance, following De La Garza to drug houses in McAllen, Mission and Palmview, according to court records. Investigators also watched him make drug deals near the intersection of Expressway 83 and 29th Street in McAllen.
Informants told the Sheriff’s Office that Garza — known on the street as “Juan Barras” because he sold Xanax bars — purchased synthetic marijuana in Houston or Beaumont every month, according to court records. Border Patrol conducted a database check, which confirmed that Garza’s vehicle passed through the Falfurrias checkpoint roughly once a month.
Border Patrol also discovered that Garza visited Mexico on a weekly basis, crossing the Hidalgo and Pharr bridges.
Investigators arrested both men and raided the drug houses on April 26. Along with synthetic marijuana and Xanax pills, they seized about $22,000 cash.
The raids significantly reduced the availability of synthetic marijuana, which had put dozens of Hidalgo County teenagers in the hospital, Guerra said.
“These dealers, they don’t care as long as they sell the stuff,” Guerra said. “They don’t care what’s in it.”
After the raids, the Sheriff’s Office noticed a reduction in theft and other crime linked to drug use.
Synthetic marijuana may also be declining in popularity among teenagers in western Hidalgo County, said La Joya school district police Chief Raul Gonzalez. Educational programs helped dispel the myth that synthetic marijuana is legal and wouldn’t appear on a drug test.
“Eventually it died down when kids started realizing what was in it,” Gonzalez said.
Drug charges against Garza and De La Garza remain pending. Attorney Mauro Barreiro, who bonded them out of jail, declined to comment on the case.