Federal agents aid in struggle to disrupt drug trafficking
By Ryan Lowery | Feb. 28, 2019
It was designed to look like a routine transaction. The buyer paid $20,000 in cash for 10 ounces of crack cocaine and 10 ounces of powder cocaine. But it wasn’t routine. In this case, the buyer was paying with cash provided by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
The deal went down on April 10, 2019, according to an affidavit filed in U.S. District Court. A confidential informant working with the DEA bought the cocaine with what’s known as official advanced funds, money that’s part of the DEA’s annual funding and is often earmarked for drug purchases like this one.
The seller of that cocaine, according to the DEA, was Robert Corbin Padilla, an Albuquerque man with ties to Las Vegas, New Mexico — a man agents had been investigating for nearly two years by this point.
Through multiple embedded informants, wiretaps and even surveillance cameras hidden inside utility poles, agents worked night and day to build a case against Padilla, who they allege ran a drug trafficking organization, or DTO, responsible for the majority of illegal drugs being sold in Las Vegas.
A day after the deal, agents intercepted a call from Padilla to a Las Vegas real estate agent, according to the affidavit. Padilla was interested in purchasing a mobile home and some land that was listed for around $21,000. The mobile home had been used as a meth lab though, and Padilla and the agent discussed the money and effort that would be required to make the property livable. Padilla ultimately offered $10,000 in cash for the property. Padilla even offered to send the agent a photo of the cash.
DEA agents intercepted another phone call that day, one between Padilla and Sharlett M. Martinez, a woman agents described as Padilla’s “paramour,” and the person agents suspect was laundering money for Padilla’s organization.
Martinez was, at the time, the branch manager at the Wells Fargo bank on Mills Avenue. After reviewing her financial records, agents found that she once withdrew $20,000 in cash from her account in $20 bills, and that she often made same-day financial transactions in small amounts “that add up to a much greater total,” according to the affidavit.
During the wiretapped phone call between Padilla and Martinez, the two discussed purchasing the property, and then, according to the DEA, Padilla instructed Martinez to withdraw $10,000 from her 401(k) account. Agents believe this was an attempt to launder the drug money by making it appear as though Martinez was purchasing the property with cash from the retirement account, not cash derived from the sale of cocaine.
ROBERT C. PADILLA
Agents with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration allege Padilla is the head of a drug trafficking organization responsible for the majority of illegal drugs being sold in Las Vegas, New Mexico.
The DEA investigation into Padilla began in 2017. In October 2018, a judge approved a warrant allowing agents to intercept, or “tap,” six phone lines used by Padilla.
Federal authorities were also granted permission to tap the phone of Jason J. Jones, a Mexican national living in Albuquerque who agents allege was one of Padilla’s main suppliers of bulk quantities of cocaine.
Agents also tapped the phone of Las Vegas resident Rose Ann Romero, who according to agents, is a “long-term drug trafficker who plays an integral role in the day-to-day operations of the Padilla DTO.”
Much of the case against Padilla was built using those wiretaps, and from confidential informants who agreed to allow federal agents to tap their phones as well. According to the DEA, the results of those wiretaps proved Padilla conducted drug trafficking activities from his home in Albuquerque’s International District, and that he frequently traveled to Las Vegas to “store, retrieve and distribute drugs.”
According to agents, one of Padilla’s closest associates was his cousin, Marcos R. Ruiz. Agents described Ruiz as “a violent felon” and “trusted Padilla DTO associate” who was one of Padilla’s “enforcers” in Las Vegas, tasked with collecting drug debts and carrying out violent attacks against those who failed to pay.
From wiretapped conversations between Padilla and Ruiz, agents inferred that Padilla would supply Ruiz with powder cocaine which Ruiz was then responsible for turning into crack, a form of cocaine commonly made by mixing baking soda and water with powder cocaine.
In the weeks before the DEA arranged to purchase cocaine and crack cocaine from Padilla, agents noticed strains on the relationship between Padilla and Ruiz.
Agents intercepted a phone call made on March 15, 2019, between Padilla and Jones, the man agents say had been supplying Padilla with cocaine for about 24 years.
During the call, Padilla complained about the quality of the cocaine Jones recently sold him. Padilla indicated that he’d passed the cocaine along to Ruiz to make it into crack, but Padilla was unhappy because Ruiz was unable to produce the proper amount of crack.
“I never complain,” Padilla said.
“No,” Jones said. “I know you don’t, dog.”
The two argued about the quality of the cocaine for a while, but by the end of the call, Padilla agreed with Jones: There was nothing wrong with the cocaine. Instead, Ruiz must have done something wrong.
In a wiretapped conversation between Padilla and Ruiz, Padilla let Ruiz know he thought it was his fault.
“You f—– up, that’s all there is to it,” Padilla said.
“I’ll do it again,” Ruiz said. “There’s no way it should’ve happened like that though.”
Padilla later told Ruiz that he just made some crack using the same cocaine, and it yielded the correct amount.
“The math’s not that hard,” Ruiz said.
“I know,” Padilla said. “I’ll send you a picture right now.”
A photo of 55.7 grams of crack cocaine DEA agents allege Padilla texted to Marcos Ruiz.
He then sent Ruiz a photo via text message showing the crack he’d made.
That picture was intercepted by DEA agents as well.
While the DEA had informants working close to Padilla and his associates, Padilla too had informants watching out for him.
The same day agents purchased $20,000 worth of cocaine, Padilla received a phone call from Rose Ann Romero. Transcripts of the intercepted call show Romero warned Padilla to “be careful,” saying she’d spoken with Padilla’s cousin Ray Herrera who told her “the feds” were looking to arrest Padilla.
That evening, agents intercepted a call between Herrera and Padilla.
“Be careful,” Herrera warned.
“That bad, huh?” Padilla asked.
“Be careful, bro,” Herrera said. “Just be careful.”
Herrera then indicated that he knew someone who worked for a “city” police agency, and that his source told him Padilla was being investigated by law enforcement. Padilla asked if it was Las Vegas Police or a “higher” agency.
“I think higher, bro,” Herrera said. “I’m just telling you to stay alert.”
In October, Chief of Police David Bibb said he’d found no evidence that any LVPD employee has shared information with Padilla or others.
Transcript of a phone call intercepted by DEA agents between Padilla and a man identified as his cousin.
By tracking Padilla and Martinez using visual surveillance and GPS data from Padilla’s phone, by August, agents had evidence Padilla was in Las Vegas, possibly attempting to avoid agents.
On multiple occasions, agents tracked Martinez’s Jeep Cherokee to the Best Western Plus on North Grand Avenue.
Agents suspected Padilla was staying at the hotel in order to avoid them, and agents applied for a warrant to search the hotel.
On Aug. 15, agents again found Martinez’s Jeep parked at the hotel, and Martinez was listed on the hotel’s guest list. One room had been rented to her, for two adults.
DEA agents executed a search warrant for the room rented to her. Inside, agents found Martinez and her two juvenile children, along with $9,950 in cash.
Padilla remained free, but with the evidence against Padilla mounting, on Sept. 11, 2019, a grand jury indicted Padilla, Ruiz and Romero on federal charges of distribution of controlled substances. Padilla was indicted on 12 counts; Ruiz was indicted on two counts; and Romero was indicted on one count.
On Sept. 16, a federal judge granted the DEA a search warrant for five locations in Las Vegas, including Ruiz’s home in the 600 block of Union Street, Romero’s home in the 1000 block of Rail Road Avenue, and the Wells Fargo on Mills Avenue where Martinez worked.
Statewide, the raids targeted 25 people, 12 who were believed to be members of Padilla’s drug trafficking organization.
Between Sept. 19 and Sept. 20, eight people were arrested, including Padilla, who was apprehended in Albuquerque.
By the end of the operation, 12 people were indicted on federal drug trafficking and firearms charges as part of the investigation, and law enforcement authorities “seized or documented” approximately 1.39 kilograms of cocaine, 567 grams of cocaine base, 160 grams of heroin, 2.68 kilograms of methamphetamine and 2,000 fentanyl pills.
Agents also recovered more than 30 firearms and seized approximately $14,000 in cash, according to the DEA.
Fourth Judicial District Attorney Richard Flores said he has offered to assist the U.S. Attorney’s office in any manner during the prosecution of these defendants.
“These individuals were operating as an organized business providing poison to our friends, neighbors and youth,” Flores said in a statement. “As such, to combat such illegal activity requires a coordinated effort on the part of not only local law enforcement, but federal resources as well.”
Currently, Padilla, Ruiz and Romero are in federal custody awaiting trial. Padilla and Romero were arrested on Sept. 19. Ruiz, who’s been charged with murder in the Aug. 4 shooting death of Mark Carrillo, was already in custody in San Miguel County, but was transferred to federal custody on Jan. 17, 2020.