This article appeared in the March 10 issue of the Progress Times.
A man accused of coordinating drug shipments for the Jalisco New Generation Cartel pleaded not guilty on Tuesday.
Ivan Ornelas-Pio of Campbell, California, is accused of heading a drug trafficking organization that smuggled cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and fentanyl through the Rio Grande Valley.
Prosecutors indicted nearly 50 people who participated in the conspiracy, including a former member of the Santa Maria school board, the owner of a south McAllen car lot and a woman known as “La Bruja.”
Ornelas-Pio waived arraignment Tuesday and pleaded not guilty to 22 charges. His attorney, Rolando Garza of Edinburg, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
During a hearing on Jan. 30 in California, however, Federal Public Defender Dejan Gantar said Ornelas-Pio was a hardworking father who held down two jobs and supported a child with a rare genetic disorder.
Based on information provided by the government, Gantar said Ornelas-Pio appeared to be a driver hired by other people.
“In other words, a relatively lower-level player in the alleged conspiracy,” Gantar said, according to an audio recording of the hearing released by the Clerk’s Office for the Northern District of California.
Assistant U.S. Attorney E. Wistar Wilson told a different story.
“The government understands that Mr. Ornelas-Pio is the leader of a drug trafficking organization,” Wilson said, according to the audio recording. “And that he and his drug trafficking organization are operating on behalf of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, one of the two largest criminal groups in Mexico — the other one being the Sinaloa Cartel.”
Members of the organization smuggled “multi-hundred kilogram quantities of methamphetamine, cocaine, fentanyl and heroin via the U.S. ports of entry in the Rio Grande Valley area of Texas,” Wilson said.
They hid the drugs in speaker boxes, Wilson said, and transported them throughout the United States.
“As of last Friday, the 27th of January, the government had indicted 48 members of the organization that Mr. Ornelas-Pio leads,” Wilson said. “I believe and understand that 44 individuals have been arrested thus far on those indictments.”
At least 16 people accused of working for Ornelas-Pio were indicted in the McAllen Division of the Southern District of Texas.
“I understand from my colleagues in the Southern District of Texas that the evidence is strong in this case,” Wilson said. “The defendant is on numerous audio recorded phone calls with several DEA undercover agents actively coordinating drug trafficking activities.”
Prosecutors believe Ornelas-Pio returned to Mexico in 2018, when federal agents started to seize his drug shipments.
“In or around June 2018, the government understands that Mr. Ornelas-Pio fled his residence in the United States and returned to his hometown in Mexico because of multiple narcotics seizures,” Wilson said.
Ornelas-Pio returned in 2022, Wilson said, but apparently crossed the border using “unconventional channels.” The government couldn’t find any record that he left or re-entered the United States through a port of entry.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration arrested Ornelas-Pio in January. He’s charged with 22 federal crimes, including conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.
If convicted on the conspiracy charge, Ornelas-Pio faces 10 years to life in federal prison.