WINTER HAVEN, Fla. (FOX 13) - A national drug trafficking investigation that involved the Polk County Sheriff's Office led to 44 arrests and the seizure of 50 pounds of meth, with a street value of $1.4 million.
Through the investigation -- which they titled "Operation Meth Death Peddlers" -- detectives learned that the drug was being brought in from Mexico to California, then delivered to other areas across the country, including Polk County.
Among the 44 arrested, nine are in the country illegally, and are being held at Polk County Jail.
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said one of the suspects, 45-year-old Acencion Zarate-Najera of Davenport, has been arrested four different times by federal authorities, yet has never been deported despite being in the country illegally.
Judd said Zarate-Najera is known as the "King of Ice" and was the ringleader of the massive drug operation.
"His kids are on WIC, federal assistance," Judd said. "Multi-million dollar drug dealer here illegally and they're getting federal assistance. If that just doesn't rip the button off your shirt, I don't know what does."
The sheriff said Zarate-Najera buried his cash in his backyard, only for his roosters to later dig up the money.
"There's some stuff that's gotta be true because you just can't make it up," Judd said.
Zarate-Najera's daughter, Cira Isabel Zarate-Bermudez, and her live-in boyfriend, George Lopez, were also arrested in the operation. Investigators said the two sold meth and collected payments for her father.
The suspects are collectively facing 85 felonies and 50 misdemeanors. They have also been previously arrested and charged with a total of 392 felonies and 325 misdemeanors. They were previously convicted of a total of 94 felonies and 142 misdemeanors.
"While this drug trafficking ring was difficult to infiltrate and there were multiple offenders, the persistence of detectives and agents was unrelenting," said FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen in a statement. "We've sent a message to traffickers that drugs won't be tolerated in our backyard."
Officials also seized money and firearms following the investigation.
Judd said the suspects "are what some in the Florida legislature refer to as 'low-level, non-violent drug offenders.'"
"Some politicians want to release drug traffickers early from prison, lower their sentences, or avoid putting them in prison all together," he said in a statement. "But make no mistake: everything about Meth is violent and destructive. It destroys lives, ruins families, and kills people. Meth equals death. If meth doesn't kill you outright, it relentlessly kills you over time. These drug dealers have blood on their hands. They make money off of the misery of others. They use violence as a means to enforce their business rules. Everything about what they do is violent to our communities and our quality of life."