Polk Sheriff Grady Judd gives a press conference on the breakup of the Familia Chavez drug trafficking ring.
Polk County, Florida -- Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd says his detectives, with the help of multiple law enforcement agencies, have taken down one of the largest drug distributors in the southeast.
"These aren't street level dealers, these aren't wholesalers. These folks were bringing in large quantities of ice, the finest form of meth," said Sheriff Judd of the so-called "Familia Chavez drug trafficking ring."
Photo Gallery: Drugs confiscated in huge Polk bust
Detectives served search warrants on 11 homes in Lake Wales and Frostproof on Tuesday where they recovered 128.5 pounds of ICE (crystal meth), 36.3 pounds of cocaine, 15 vehicles and more than $533,000 in cash.
The search culminated a four-month long wire tap investigation that started in January when detectives were tipped off that bulk quantities of ICE were coming in to Polk County from Mexico.
Sheriff Judd says the suspects were aware they were being watched and even used techniques seen on television crime shows to try and hide their cover, but still continued to smuggle the drugs into the country anyway.
According to investigators, the suspects would use couriers to smuggle the drugs into the United States from Mexico, often hiding the drugs in compartments built into vehicles and driving through the border unnoticed.
Earlier this month, one courier was almost caught at the US/Mexico border that had been put on lockdown after three Americans were killed. Sheriff Judd says a drug dog alerted border agents to drugs, but after dismantling the vehicle and hours of searching, they were unsuccessful in finding the drugs and let the vehicle go.
Judd says his detectives knew the drugs were in the vehicle based on information they intercepted through the wire tap and stopped the vehicle in Okeechobee County, Florida less than 24 hours later.
Detectives dismantled the vehicle for a second time and still couldn't find the drugs, until the very end of the search.
"My detectives said, 'I know there's supposed to be drugs in this car, but my goodness how are we ever going to get this car put back together if we don't find drugs?' They were panicked, because we had literally taken it into pieces," said Sheriff Judd, "In some of our last ditch efforts, when we looked at this vehicle, it looked perfect and that's when we discovered the first of four compartments."
Sheriff Judd says the suspects were experts at concealing the drugs, saying, "It's hard to explain just how good these people were at what they were doing."
But the suspects didn't always try to hide what they were doing. Several beer bottles full of liquid meth seized in the bust had been stamped by U.S. Customs.
"Don't let anyone lead you to believe that our borders are secure between here and Mexico. They aren't," said Sheriff Judd.
Twenty-one people have been arrested since the investigation first began in January, including the suspected ring leader's sons, 30-year old Erik Chavez and 23-year old Homar Chavez.
Sheriff Judd says Erik and Homar's father Crisantos Chavez appears to be leading the whole operation out of Morelia, Mexico, one of the epicenters of the Mexican drug war.
Crisantos Chavez was arrested by Polk County detectives in 2006 on Armed Trafficking charges, but fled to Mexico after he bonded out of jail.
Cristanos Chavez is one of four people still at-large, along with his son Natialio Chavez, Margarita Avellandeda, and Tony Alverado.
"We hope we can find them and can safely lock them up in jail before the cartel finds them and deals with them otherwise," said Sheriff Judd.
The investigation is on-going. Detectives also arrested the mother of Erik Chavez's 4-month old son, 20-year-old Morgan Wilson.
Detectives say Wilson brought the baby to a major drug deal when he was only a few days old. The child was at the home on Tuesday when his parents were arrested during the raid.
The child has been placed in the care of family. DCF is also investigating.
Laura Kadechka, 10 Connects