Gustavo Lopez organized one of the most lucrative drug smuggling rings in the Rio Grande Valley

Gustavo Lopez organized one of the most lucrative drug smuggling rings in the Rio Grande Valley.Working under the nickname "El Licendiado," he allegedly moved hundreds of pounds of cocaine and marijuana from Mexico to Atlanta.He reportedly laundered millions of dollars in proceeds through a chain of Valley auto parts businesses.And he managed a staff of more than 40 drug mules and cash runners whose ranks reportedly included moles in at least two law enforcement agencies, according to a 10-count federal indictment issued last month in Atlanta.But even if all of that turns out to be true, his attorney maintains, Lopez was nothing more than middle management."One man's manager is another man's flunky," lawyer Ralph Martinez said. "He may have done nothing more than echo what (his Mexican backers) were ordering."Lopez, 35, of Palmview, was arrested Oct. 29 as part of a two-year U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement-led investigation targeting smuggling routes between the Valley and Atlanta.Agents have issued arrest warrants for 41 people believed to be working for him or his Mexican counterpart and childhood friend - Dimas "El Guerro" Gonzalez.Their reported accomplices include a former Hidalgo County sheriff's deputy caught with nearly $1 million in alleged drug proceeds in the outskirts of Atlanta and a yet unidentified "contact within a law enforcement agency with access to sensitive databases."In all, agents seized more than $22 million, 6,000 pounds of marijuana and 490 pounds of cocaine reportedly linked to their organization.And upon Lopez's arrest, he directed federal agents to a Pharr stash house containing more than a ton of marijuana."This is about as serious as it gets in drug trafficking cases," said U.S. Magistrate Peter Ormsby at a detention hearing last week, where Lopez pleaded not guilty to multiple counts of conspiracy, drug smuggling and money laundering.ICE agents testified they had surveilled Lopez and Gonzalez for months and recorded hours of phone conversations in which the two men took great lengths to separate themselves from the men and women allegedly moving their drugs.The two conducted almost all of their business during face-to-face meetings in Reynosa, ICE Special Agent Lupe Sanchez said. When they did talk on the phone, they spoke in coded language.But Lopez's attorney insists that his client's sole occupation was working as an auto parts salesman."He was never found with any of those drugs or any of that money," Martinez said in court.
Federal prosecutors allege Lopez's business - GLG Collision Auto Parts - also served his purported smuggling empire. They have initiated criminal forfeiture proceedings against the storefronts in Hidalgo, Donna and Brownsville and several bank accounts linked to the organization that they say were used to launder drug proceeds.
Lopez remains in federal custody pending a trial in Atlanta. A date has not yet been set.And many of the men who could shed more light on the allegations against him - including Gonzalez and former sheriff's deputy Emmanuel Sanchez - are believed to be hiding in Mexico to avoid arrest, federal authorities said.But just by what their investigation has uncovered thus far, federal authorities believe they have disrupted a major narcotics pipeline."Just a seizure of $23 million alone suggests a huge amount of drugs," said Agent Sanchez, who is not related to the former deputy. "And that's just what we found."

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