Suspects in alleged drug cartel plead not guilty

Four suspects in an alleged, major, Mexico-based drug cartel pleaded not guilty to a host of charges, ranging from drug trafficking, to murder, in a Clayton County Superior Court arraignment on Monday.

The four entering pleas were among 43 individuals who police, including federal and state authorities, nabbed in recent raids dubbed "Operation Choke Hold." They are the only ones, among those arrested, who are in the Clayton County Jail, according to Clayton County Assistant Chief District Attorney Erman Tanjuatco.

Waldo Alexis Cruz, Roberto Quinterro, Moises Fernando Estrada and Gilberto Ernesto Howell pleaded not guilty to all charges against them.

Howell pleaded not guilty to one count of conspiracy to traffick marijuana. He is represented Attorney Leah Madden. No other attorney spoke to the court.

"They have nothing on my client," said Madden. "His [Gilberto's] arrest was based upon a confidential informant." She added that she does not know why her client, who was arrested in Fulton County, is being prosecuted the Clayton County District Attorney's Office.

La Familia Michoacan, a reputed drug cartel, is a violent organization, which is responsible for the importation of bulk quantities of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana into the Metropolitan Atlanta area, according to a drug enforcement agency media advisory.

More than $10 million worth of drugs were seized during recent raids involving the group. Multiple police agencies announced last week, the seizure of 4,120 pounds of marijuana, 46 pounds of methamphetamine, 43 kilograms of cocaine, 20 firearms, six vehicles and $2.35 million in U.S. currency, according to Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson.

"La Familia is a heavily armed cartel that has utilized violence to support its narcotics trafficking business, including murders, kidnappings and assaults," law enforcement officials said at a press conference following the raids.

"Some of the defendants have not been arrested," said Tanjuatco. According to Clayton County Chief Investigator Paul Garland, there are national warrants out for the remaining suspects, who have not been arrested.

Tanjuatco said there are six suspects in custody in Gwinnett County, five in Henry County, one in Douglas County, two in Fulton County, four in Forsyth, five in Cobb County, and five in Spalding County.

The alleged head of the cartel, Hugo Rodriguez, was in custody in Fulton County, but he bonded out of jail, and is now wanted authorities, said Tanjuatco. He added that another top official in the drug cell, Samuel Galvan, was arrested in Henry County.

Judge Matthew Simmons presided over the arraignment, which took place at 9 a.m. Monday. Clayton County Assistant District Attorney Bill Dixon, represented Clayton County. Online court documents show that the next hearing will be a probation-and-bond revocation hearing, which is set for Nov. 22.