When two inmates at the London Correctional Institution talked to outsiders about the NFL during telephone calls, they were placing orders.
The “Indianapolis Colts” was the code phrase for cocaine.
The “Pittsburgh Steelers” represented heroin.
The “Green Bay Packers” stood for marijuana.
Authorities say the use of those team names in calls to “Rabbit,” “White Boy” and others resulted in large shipments of heroin and cocaine from Mexico hitting the streets in Ohio and four other states.
What officials describe as a major drug ring was run from behind bars by a Columbus inmate and another prisoner who recruited their dealers from fellow drug-traffickers prior to their release from the Madison County prison.
A Cincinnati-area drug task force revealed yesterday that a prison snitch led to 14 arrests and seizure of 35 pounds of heroin with a street value of $1.7 million, 18 pounds of cocaine ($200,000) and $600,000 in drug-related assets.
In addition to Cincinnati, Dayton and Springfield in Ohio, the drug ring operated in California, Texas, Nevada and Illinois, said Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Neil.
One of the two Mexican nationals who authorities charged with running the operation from the Ohio prison is a Columbus man.
Cesar Llamas, 38, who remains behind bars in London, and others are charged with dealing in narcotics and conspiracy to deal in narcotics.
Llamas has been imprisoned since 2008 after being convicted in Franklin County Common Pleas Court of drug trafficking and engaging in corrupt acts. He is serving an eight-year sentence.
The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction permitted investigators to listen to recordings of phone calls once suspects were identified and to also review their incoming and outgoing mail, said a spokesman for Neil.
“It’s certainly something we take very seriously,” prisons spokeswoman JoEllen Smith said of the prison-based drug ring. There was no evidence the ring imported drugs into the prison, she said.
Prison officials frequently search for illegal cellphones smuggled into prison and can monitor phone calls made by inmates, she said.
Although all inmate calls are recorded, it is impossible to monitor or review calls made by thousands of inmates, Smith said. The agency only monitors calls when there is reason to suspect an inmate is involved in illegal activity, she said.
Prisoners also can exchange information during in-person visits and via email and video-visitation services paid for by inmates and their families. All communications are monitored but not all are reviewed, she said.
There is no indication that the London drug operation was gang-related, but officials familiar with prisons say it probably was tied to a gang because of the high level of organization and communication. Dozens of gangs operate inside prisons, typically based on racial and geographical breakdowns. Gang members frequently communicate orders inside the institution, between prisons, and to the outside world, the officials said.
“Certainly this calls for additional scrutiny and monitoring by the prison staff to prevent this kind of illicit activity behind bars,” said Joanna Saul, executive director of the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, a legislative body that monitors prisons.
Llamas and the others were charged Thursday in Dearborn County, Ind., west of Cincinnati, after undercover officers who arranged a buy at a hotel on Jan. 15 arrested two people and seized 8.8 pounds of heroin.
Although investigators had started digging about six months earlier, they got their big break on Jan. 10.
A prison snitch, who apparently was close to Llamas, called a drug-task force officer about the drug operation and agreed to work as an informant, according to a probable-cause affidavit filed in court in Lawrenceburg, Ind.
The informant and Llamas would talk about drug deals with a former London inmate, often in Spanish, and also started talking to an undercover officer who arranged to make a buy of heroin, the document said. The former inmate, freed last year, apparently is at-large in Mexico, authorities said.
It is common for drug dealers to use code words — such as the names of NFL teams — “to avoid detection by law enforcement,” according to the affidavit.
By Randy Ludlow - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (MCT)
Dispatch Reporter Alan Johnson contributed to this story.
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