When a Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) investigator and a Florida Highway Patrol (FHP) trooper began investigating suspicious activity at an Altha home over a year ago, they had no idea the kind of case they were about to crack. But after a little digging, it was clear they had stumbled upon a major drug ring with ties to a Mexican cartel. The case originated by CCSO Lt. Mark “Kipper” Mallory and FHP Trooper Dusty Arnold, who also works on the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) Task Force, has led to the arrests of eight Mexican nationals residing in the U.S. – four of whom were living in Altha. They include Jose Misael Garfias-Garcia, Melchor Munoz, Xavier Pena-Cintron, Miguel Angel Moreno-Ortega, Noe Vasquez, Jose Luis Acosta-Patino, Luis Barrantes, and Lissette A. Pena. In addition, Torbin Neal Dykes, 28, of Blountstown, was also charged, as well as Jamie Jones and Robert Dante Jones, both of Washington County, and Tony O’Neal of Montgomery, Alabama. Lt. Mallory and Tpr. Arnold were targeting Xavier Pena-Cintron and Lissette A. Pena, who were residing on Ashley Shiver Road in Altha, when the case first originated. After realizing the magnitude of their investigation, they called in the feds. In the end, the Drug Enforcement Administration, Homeland Security Investigations, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Florida Highway Patrol, the Florida Department of Agriculture, the Florida National Guard, the Sheriff’s Offices for Calhoun, Jackson, Liberty, and Leon Counties, and the Tallahassee Police Department all had a hand in shutting down this massive marijuana and cocaine operation.Sources say a home on Smokey Lane in Altha occupied by Barrantes became a “stash house” where over 1000 pounds of marijuana and multiple kilos of cocaine were stored at certain times. Garfias-Garcia, who resided on Hwy. 69-A, in Altha, was said to be at the “top of the ladder.” He and Moreno-Ortego were reportedly connected to the La Familia drug cartel. After surveillance from the ground and air, both day and night, the case busted wide open last spring. The defendants were booked one by one into the Leon County Jail in May 2011 with an order to hold temporarily for DEA. The details of the case and even the names of the defendants were sealed by a federal judge’s order. The results of the investigation finally came to light this week after Garfias-Garcia, 33, and Moreno-Ortega, 25, were convicted late Friday in federal court of conspiring to distribute cocaine and marijuana. Munoz, 35, of Marianna, was also set to go on trial with the pair, but entered a guilty plea April 9. The remaining nine defendants previously pled guilty to drug conspiracy charges, but their case information was withheld pending the conclusion of the trial. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, evidence at trial showed the men participated in the delivery of 177 pounds of marijuana that was seized by DEA in Montgomery, Alabama, on May 29, 2011. Officers searched the defendants’ Altha residence on the same day, recovering documents and a cellular telephone that connected Garfias-Garcia to 1,285 kilograms of marijuana and 39 kilograms of cocaine that had been seized in Laredo, Texas, in December 2010. During the search of the defendants’ residence, agents also seized $54,832 in cash, a money counting machine, two loaded handguns, and false identification documents.At trial, the government introduced recordings of conversations intercepted during a series of court-authorized wiretaps. The recordings established that both defendants had been engaged in cocaine and marijuana trafficking over a 17-month period. The government’s case also included surveillance videos and the testimony of cooperating co-conspirators. Garfias-Garcia, whom the jury found responsible for conspiring to distribute five or more kilograms of cocaine and 100 or more kilograms of marijuana, faces a minimum ten years and up to life imprisonment. Moreno-Ortega, who was found responsible for 100 or more kilograms of marijuana and an undetermined amount of cocaine, faces a minimum of five and up to forty years’ imprisonment. Both men are Mexican nationals and are subject to deportation proceedings. Details on sentencing for the other 10 defendants was not available at press time.Lt. Mallory extends his appreciation to all the investigators who assisted in this case, with special thanks to Inv. Todd Wheetley of the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office and Tpr. Dusty Arnold.The case was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Michael T. Simpson, who is the Senior Litigation Counsel for the Northern District of Florida. Sources say additional arrests are anticipated.