From Rhode Island base, trafficker supplied by Mexican cartels spread drugs over Northeast
A twice-deported Dominican Republic native settled into Providence, Rhode Island, and leveraged his connections with two Mexican cartel powerhouses to supply a four-state region with millions of dollars in deadly drugs.
Juni Rafael Jimenez-Martinez, known as "Rafa," relied upon a close network of Dominicans throughout the northeast to help pick up kilograms of drugs in New York City, delivering some loads to customers there and taking others to southern New Hampshire and drug hub Lawrence, Massachusetts, less than an hour's drive northwest of Boston. He also eventually built a customer base in the Providence area.
"Rhode Island is both a transit point between New York, Massachusetts and points north and now perhaps in the other direction, and we're also a state with a persistent longstanding and growing opioid problem," Rhode Island U.S. Attorney Zachary A. Cunha told The Courier Journal in March.
"There is a market here," he said.
Jimenez-Martinez sometimes bought cocaine from Colombia and also established ties to both the infamous Sinaloa Cartel, once headed by notorious drug lord "El Chapo," and its top rival the Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación, known as CJNG. Both cartels, the main drug suppliers to the U.S., have been known to murder other traffickers for doing business with their enemies, typically viewed as a betrayal.
This case involved a disturbing trend: pressing fentanyl into fake prescription pills, a top danger for young adults experimenting at parties and others who think they're taking legitimate pain medicine. The case also is emblematic of a Mexican cartel tactic to team with Dominican-lead drug rings in the northeast to quickly capitalize on the deadliest drug epidemic in American history.
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"The Mexicans are much more loyal, and they install their family in positions of trust," according to an investigator who worked on the case while a member of a DEA Rhode Island task force.
"Dominicans are looking for who's gonna give the best price. They just move it so quickly, it's not hard for them to get a source" of supply, said the investigator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The DEA warned in its 2020 National Drug Threat Assessment that "Dominican [drug trafficking networks] dominate the distribution of cocaine and white powder heroin in the Northeastern corridor of the United States" and dominate wholesale distribution of fentanyl in certain areas of the Northeast, using New York City as the main drug hub.
The Dominican drug traffickers are often supplied by Colombian and Mexican suppliers, the report stated.
Mexican cartels were drawn to Jimenez-Martinez because of his ability to rapidly move a load of drugs, which includes picking it up, delivering it to its destination and selling it.
"The speed at which he could get rid of product was unbelievable," the task force officer said.
In one instance, he said the Jimenez-Martinez crew accepted a load of 20 kilograms in New York City, transported it to Massachusetts and had the drugs sold all within eight hours ― something that typically takes other drug rings days.
"We wanted to grab it, but we didn't know the route he was going," said the investigator. "By the time we figured it out, he was already done."
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Using acid to hide his identity
To learn about the scope of this drug ring, a Courier Journal reporter interviewed state investigators and federal prosecutors and read hundreds of pages of court records. This report is part of a cartel project launched in 2019 with a trip to Mexico to learn more about CJNG, a global cartel powerhouse and major supplier of the drugs fueling the deadliest drug epidemic in U.S. history.
Drug investigators first identified Jimenez-Martinez, who had been deported to the Dominican Republic, as a drug trafficker 14 years ago. Agents arrested him and others for trafficking cocaine and heroin through New York in 2008. He pleaded guilty, and a federal judge in New York sentenced him to serve five years and five months in prison.
When he was released in 2014, he was deported again, but when he slipped back into the U.S., he took several precautions.
Previously, he lived in Boston, but it became "hot" with too many drug investigators. He decided to move to neutral turf, living in Providence but doing business in New York and Massachusetts. Several of his associates also settled in Providence, and they eventually built a customer base there, too.
Jimenez-Martinez took other steps to avoid detection by investigators, including dipping his fingertips in acid to burn off his fingerprints, according to the task force officer. He used several aliases, including "Ismael," "Carlos" and "Junior."
He also took steps to blend in, using a car with New Jersey tags when he or his associates picked up drugs in New York, and another car with Massachusetts tags to make deliveries to Lawrence.
He understood the importance of fostering relationships within Dominican social circles throughout the Northeast, leveraging his own ties to his native homeland. Jimenez-Martinez and at least four members of his Rhode Island drug ring were from Bani ― near the south coast of the Caribbean Sea and about an hour's drive southwest of Santo Domingo.
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A federal judge approved wire taps in March and April 2019, allowing investigators with the DEA, Homeland Security Investigations, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and Rhode Island State Police to listen in on calls between Jimenez-Martinez and his associates, who mainly lived in Providence.
Drug ring members took orders from Jimenez-Martinez and chatted in Spanish about drugs deals involving heroin, cocaine and fentanyl, according to the criminal complaint.
Investigators arrested Jimenez-Martinez in Providence in 2019. He pleaded guilty in 2021 to trafficking cocaine, but denied any involvement with fentanyl.
In June, a judge in Rhode Island sentenced Jimenez-Martinez, 47, to serve a 15-year sentence in federal prison for drug trafficking.
His attorney lobbied in court documents for leniency, claiming Jimenez-Martinez has regretted his crimes and greatly missed his children during the three years in jail awaiting sentencing. According to the defense sentencing memo, he has a 10th-grade education but can find legitimate work once he serves his prison stint and is deported back to the Dominican Republic, where he has a strong family support system.
Jimenez-Martinez organized the daily distribution of cocaine and fentanyl, prosecutors argued, and it's impossible to know the full extent of drugs that made it to drug users.
Prosecutors claim the 18 kilos of fentanyl alone that police seized from one of the drug ring members could hold 9 million potentially lethal doses.
"The defendant sought to distribute volumes of fentanyl that had the potential to wipe out the entire populations of Rhode Island and Massachusetts," according to the government's sentencing memo.
Jimenez-Martinez also had a pill press to shape fentanyl into fake prescription pain medicine and he often was searching for the right shade of blue dye, according to a investigator on the case. DEA lab tests show that 6 out of 10 fake prescription pills containing fentanyl on the streets today contain a potentially lethal dose, according to the DEA's "One Pill Can Kill" campaign.
Often, local drug dealers and customers are unaware of the danger. Just two milligrams of fentanyl, about the size of a pencil tip, can kill. On average, 150 people die in the U.S. each day from a synthetic opioid overdose, often from fentanyl, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Trafficking drugs fronted by cartel leads to dangerous situation
More overdoses were likely thwarted by a routine traffic stop near the Illinois-Missouri border in 2019.
The seemingly minor traffic stop in March of that year caused a major headache for Jimenez-Martinez.
An Illinois state trooper pulled over a driver in a Nissan Armada SUV for speeding eastbound on U.S. 70 in Madison County, Illinois, four hours south of Chicago near St. Louis. The driver seemed nervous, so the trooper asked for permission to look inside the SUV. He found a duffle bag stuffed with 15 individually wrapped packages of fentanyl and heroin, according to the criminal complaint against Nelson Pichardo-Reyes, brother-in-law of Jimenez-Martinez.
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The driver admitted to Illinois investigators that he was a courier who had followed Mexican suppliers' orders to pick up drugs in California, and he was taking them to a buyer in New York. He expected to get $10,000 for this drug run.
The courier, listed only in court documents as "CS" or as Confidential Source, agreed to work with investigators and call drug ring members to arrange details to drop off about more than 14 kilos of fentanyl and one kilo of heroin.
The courier admitted to working for Mexican suppliers for three or four months, having made two prior trips to deliver money.
Agents followed along as the drug courier headed north toward the Bronx, but the drug buyer got nervous and was a no-show.
Investigators listened in as the drug courier called a cartel member in Mexico for further instructions. The courier was sent to meet the initial buyer's associate, Pichardo-Reyes.
They met in a commercial parking lot in Fort Lee, New Jersey, on March 24, 2019, and agents pounced, arresting Pichardo-Reyes and seizing the drugs. Agents took him to the DEA office in New York and talked to him with the aid of a Spanish translator. He said he followed orders to meet the courier, and he thought he was picking up five kilograms of cocaine destined for Boston, according to the statement of facts in his case.
The Sinaloa Cartel had "fronted" the drugs, meaning they allowed the Jimenez-Martinez ring to take the drugs and pay for them later. So, the police seizure created a $100,000 debt.
Police listened in as Jimenez-Martinez complained to cartel members that he shouldn't have to pay because police took the drugs before he got them. He said he felt he had been set up by the cartel's drug courier. The cartel wanted its money. This back and forth went on for about 30 minutes.
The cartel sent someone to his elderly mother's house in the Dominican Republic and they sent someone to the New York house shared by his sister and Pichardo-Reyes, according to the investigator.
"They were trying to scare him," the veteran lawman said. "There were some threats there."
Jimenez-Martinez ended up paying the $100,000 debt. And a judge in Illinois sentenced Pichardo-Reyes in 2020 to eight years and four months in federal prison.
Jimenez -Martinez remains in a low-security federal prison in Allenwood, Pennsylvania, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. His expected release date is April 2032.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Drug trafficking: Rhode Island man linked to CJNG and Sinaloa Cartel