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‘Operation White Pony’ targets Pinellas heroin users

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— Standing next to a table atop which sat $90,000, 14 guns and several boxes of bullets in clear plastic bags, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri lauded the success of an undercover heroin and cocaine bust that so far has rounded up 14 suspected participants.

The investigation, nicknamed “Operation White Pony,” was the result of numerous transactions between undercover detectives and members of the drug ring, as well as extensive electronic surveillance of those believed to be involved.

Gualtieri said the arrests are part of an effort to stem the circulation of these drugs, especially heroin, which he said has been on the rise in recent years, in large part because a law enforcement crackdown on prescription painkillers has driven up their prices - though the demand is still there.

“Despite these great strides, these great efforts and these great successes that are really reducing the illegal opium-based prescriptions in the United States, we’re seeing a lot more heroin,” he said. “And the reason we’re seeing a lot more heroin is because this problem, this drug problem, is an addiction problem.”

He said there have been at least three deaths by heroin overdose so far in 2014. In 2013, Gualtieri said, there were four death and in 2012 there was only one.

At the center of the bust was a couple, Isabel Jasso, 34 and Pedro Maisonet Gonzales, 40, arrested late last month. The two, who lived together in Pinellas Park, imported cocaine and heroin from Jorge Lopez, 43, of Pinellas Park and Jorge Perez, 38, of Tucson, Ariz., Gualtieri said, among other sources.

Lopez is believed to have obtained his supply from Orlando, while Gualtieri said Perez imported his from Puerto Rico and Mexico. Perez’s mother, Maribel Diaz-Ortiz and her boyfriend, Carlos Collazo, both of Tampa, were arrested and are suspected of selling drugs Perez sent to them via the U.S. Postal Service.

A handful of lower-level drug dealers also were arrested, and detectives are trying to track down three more.

Extensive wiretapping of some of the suspects’ telephones and other electronic devices was used throughout the investigation after law enforcement obtained warrants.

“Literally thousands of telephone calls were intercepted to establish a heroin and cocaine drug-trafficking conspiracy that brought significant amounts of heroin and cocaine into Pinellas County and the Tampa Bay area during the past year,” Gualtieri said.

James “Jimmy” DiCaprio, assistant special agent in charge at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s Tampa office, said the bust likely will have an impact on heroin and cocaine availability and use locally.

“A lot of times you make a local impact and you sort of round up the people in the area and it starts up again because you didn’t take the head off the dragon,” he said.

Gualtieri said detectives plan to work their way up the food chain to stem the flow of the drugs into the area.

“You got a guy who’s based here that is causing the drugs to hit the streets here,” he said. “From a big-time drug dealer standpoint, he’s not the biggest fish.”

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