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Arrests in drug trafficking ring stretching from Holyoke to Florida expected to reduce oxycodone sold on streets  

Thursday’s dismantling of a drug trafficking ring stretching from Holyoke to Orlando, Fla. is expected to put a significant dent in the supply of oxycodone sold on streets in dozens of communities throughout western New England.

“This is a significant crew in our area,” said Easthampton Police Detective Robert Alberti, a member of the Western Massachusetts Gang Task Force that participated in a lengthy, multi-agency investigation.

The investigation, dubbed “Operation More or Less,” led by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. attorney’s office, culminated Thursday in raids at four Holyoke addresses and the arrest of nine Holyoke residents.

Similar raids occurred in central Florida, where the ringleaders live, and Puerto Rico. Alberti said 40 arrest warrants were issued in Florida alone.

Oxycodone is the main drug involved in the investigation, but police also seized heroin and weapons. Alberti said the local task force discovered the operation last fall and alerted officials in Florida, who launched the multi-agency investigation.

The organization’s leaders recruited and paid people to travel from Massachusetts, primarily Holyoke, and Puerto Rico to Florida, where they went to clinics to get prescriptions for painkillers.

Once they obtained the pills, the ringleaders packaged the drugs in boxes and mailed them through the U.S. Postal Service to various addresses in Holyoke, where they were then sold.

Distributors in Holyoke then deposited proceeds from the sales into a bank account that the Florida leaders used to keep the operation afloat. Over the course of the investigation, Alberti said, the Holyoke group laundered about $1.3 million.

“This was a big deal,” he said.

The Orlando Sentinel reported Thursday that the ring has been operating in central Florida for several years and received much of its drug supply from a pharmacy in Kissimmee, Fla.

Among those arrested in Florida were brothers-in-law who led the ring and a pharmacy technician accused of supplying the pills.

Alberti said police seized 80 grams, or about 3 ounces, of raw heroin, 600 bags of heroin and two firearms and ammunition in the Holyoke raids.

He said the arrests are key because oxycodone is a precursor to heroin use. People typically start using the painkiller because they are afraid to take heroin. Once they become hooked on the drug, most can’t afford its high cost — $1 per milligram, or $30 for an average 30 milligram pill — so they turn to heroin, which is much cheaper.

Alberti said the arrests were important for communities like Easthampton and its neighbors because Holyoke is considered a distribution center, or “source city,” for heroin and oxycodone.

“That’s why we devote community resources to help with the drug problem in Holyoke — because it directly affects us,” Alberti said.

Thursday’s arrests come on the heels of another raid 10 days ago on a heroin distribution ring and the arrest of the alleged leader of La Familia street gang.

That operation, called 60 Minutes, led to the indictment of 11 men, including 10 from Holyoke, on charges of distributing and possessing with intent to distribute heroin or cocaine.

Among those arrested Thursday in Holyoke were the alleged local leader, Angel Medina, 31, and a Holyoke school cafeteria worker named Idalia Morales, 54. Also arrested were Edwin Negron, 26; Heriberto Morales, 44; Doel Vega, 23; Carlos Alberto Cotto, 24; Cynthia Maldonado, 30; Alex Collazo, 35; and Miguel Berrios, 52.

Alberti said that while Thursday’s raid put a dent in the operation in the region, he said the drug problem isn’t going away any time soon.

“I don’t think this is over,” he said.

In addition to the DEA, the U.S. attorney’s office and the gang task force, other agencies involved in the investigation include the FBI, the Massachusetts State Police, Hampden County district attorney’s office, Holyoke and Easthampton police departments, and the U.S. Postal Service.

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