The FBI is calling it the "largest takedown in U.S. history involving cargo theft."
Indictments were announced Thursday against 11 South Florida suspects accused of stealing more than $75 million worth of pharmaceutical products, including prescription drugs, according to U.S. Attorney Wifredo A. Ferrer.
Operation Southern Hospitality targeted those involved in the theft of property from warehouses and tractor-trailers across the country that was brought to South Florida for redistribution.
Federal agents arrested the 11 suspects around Florida on Thursday morning. All were scheduled to appear in federal court in Fort Lauderdale on Thursday and Friday.
Separate yet related cases were filed against some or all of the suspects in Connecticut, Illinois and New Jersey as well. A 12th suspect was arrested in Nebraska on Thursday, agents said.
"[They] moved truckloads and pallets of stolen pharmaceuticals from other states to South Florida for storage and ultimate sale," Ferrer said. "[They] handled these medications without any regard whatsoever for their proper storage and care, and — worse yet — with a callous disregard for the safety and health of the ultimate consumer who might buy and use these drugs."
In March 2010, more than $75 million worth of prescription and over-the-counter medications were stolen from an Eli Lilly pharmaceuticals warehouse in Connecticut, considered the largest theft of its kind in the country. The property included 4,654 boxes of anti-psychotic and antidepressant medications, and Gemzar, an intravenous drug used for the treatment of cancer.
In addition, some suspects were linked to three other thefts, including the anti-anxiety medication alprazolam, stolen from a tractor-trailer at a truck stop in Pennsylvania; the prescription acne medication ClindaReach, stolen from a big rig at an Ohio truck stop; and other medications used to treat diabetes and epilepsy, stolen from a GlaxoSmithKline warehouse in Virginia.
Also stolen were Remicade, a prescription injectable medication used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis and other disorders,taken from a tractor-trailer at a truck stop in Tennessee; more than 3,500 cases of cigarettes valued at more than $8 million from a warehouse in Tazewell County, Ill.; and approximately 200 stolen Zodiac brand inflatable boats.
Among those charged in the 18-count indictment were Ernesto Romero Vidal, 46, of Hallandale; Leonardo Manuel Guerra, 43, of Clewiston; Amaury Villa, 37, of Miami; Roberto Garcia-Amador, 46, of Miami; Abel Mesa Samper, 39, of Miami; Michael Rangel, 38, of Hialeah; Suhong Wu, 42, of Miami; Geovanni Gonzalez, 40, of Hialeah; Pedro L. Rangel, 27, of Miami; Carlos Alberto Valdes, 43, of Hialeah Gardens, and Yanni A. Sanchez, 39, of Hialeah.
All face between 5 and 10 years in prison if convicted, prosecutors said.