SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — A Sacramento grocery store owner at the center of an FBI drug trafficking investigation is accused of using his store as a front and partnering with one of Mexico’s most ruthless cartels.
This six-year investigation spans across the state and started after an informant agreed to work with the FBI in exchange for help with his immigration status. Now, two suspects are facing federal drug charges.READ MORE: California Gov. Newsom Criticizes GOP After Texas School Shooting: 'Who The Hell Are We If We Cannot Keep Our Kids Safe'
Customers at La Victoria are used to visiting the Mexican supermarket on Del Paso Boulevard for their favorite foods. Shoppers were shocked to hear the grocery store is allegedly connected to a ruthless drug cartel and being used as a front to traffic cocaine.
“I’m shocked to hear that because I see a lot of people coming into the store,” said customer Lashawnda Broughton.
Jose Manuel Chavez Zepeda, the owner of the market, was arrested on federal drug charges, including the distribution of cocaine, along with Denis Ponce Castillo. Court documents claim the two were using the supermarket for drug deal operations and laundering the profits.
“It’s not good knowing that there are kids that walk through here,” Broughton said. “There is a church and a school not too far away from here.”
The FBI believes the Mexican cartel Jalisco New Generation supplied the cocaine to Chavez: first, by smuggling the drugs across the border, then traveling to Los Angeles where the drugs were allegedly loaded into trucks and driven to Ceres before being distributed throughout Sacramento.
“It’s really depressing because we are already in a bad neighborhood as it is, and that is not benefitting the people of the community,” customer Paul Yanez said.READ MORE: California Passes Water Ban For Commercial Properties Amid Ongoing Drought
An informant who helped distribute and bought the cocaine told the FBI that Chavez called Ponce the “stash pad” manager. Investigators claim they have video and audio of the suspects, including an interaction where Chavez talks about the “beauty” and “pureness” of the cocaine.
This alleged grocery store drug ring has customers saying it will keep them from coming back.
“If they are using this for a front to sell drugs, no telling what else they would do,” Broughton said.
Both suspects are accused of selling tens of thousands of dollars worth of cocaine. Court records accuse the men of years of drug trafficking, however, documents only detail one transaction involving an FBI confidential human source (CHS). Mr. Ponce’s attorney claims he is innocent.
“[I] urge the public to reserve judgment until all the facts come out and to respect his privacy and his family’s privacy, and we are going to do everything to defend Mr. Ponce,” explained Attorney Etan Zaitsu. “I think everything is being sensationalized and it is unfair to be dragging his name through the mud like this.”
Zaitsu explained he takes issue with the allegations coming from a CHS.
“What we are talking about is a six-year investigation and all the government has to show for it is one alleged transaction,” he said. “This one single transaction was conducted by not a professional, but a CHS who is trying to cut a deal,” he explained.MORE NEWS: President Biden Delivers Remarks On Texas School Shooting
If convicted, the pair could spend 5 to 40 years in prison and could face up to $5 million in fines.