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The danger was crystal-clear

Crackdown stems S. Jersey meth trade

Hammonton's a picturesque town known for its Italian heritage, blueberry crops and football teams, but authorities say crystal methamphetamine could have slowly rotted the Atlantic County hamlet into something ugly.

The "Blueberry Capital of the World" was home to a network of meth distributors, authorities said, who received four to six pounds of Mexican-made crystal meth per week and peddled it to users in area bars and homes.

"As the police chief in town, I'm disappointed that Hammonton is even involved," said Police Chief Frank Ingemi. "It's scary to know this was out there."

A 22-month investigation into a meth and marijuana pipeline by the Philadelphia-Camden High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force and 19 other law-enforcement agencies stretched far beyond Hammonton, however.

According to Camden County prosecutor Warren Faulk, the investigation began in February 2008, when the Postal Service intercepted a 60-pound package of marijuana being shipped from McAllen, Texas, to Lindenwold, Camden County.

Investigators learned that a drug organization was shipping approximately 150 pounds of marijuana per week to distributors in various towns in Camden and Atlantic counties. The crystal meth was being manufactured in the southern Mexican state of Jalisco and smuggled over the border to Columbus, Ohio, before making its way to Hammonton.

In total, the operation confiscated seven pounds of crystal meth worth $627,000, one ton of marijuana, and 1.5 kilos of cocaine along with weapons and cash, Faulk said.

Of the 28 people arrested so far, 16 lived in Hammonton and included many Mexican migrant workers and the owner of a prominent blueberry farm on the outskirts of town.

Faulk said the crystal meth operation was crucial because the drug had not gained a considerable foothold in South Jersey.

"It was important to cut off the crystal meth source, because you all know it's a highly addictive drug," he said during a morning news conference yesterday.

Lt. Mark Nicholas, of the prosecutor's office, said meth has plagued Columbus, Ohio, a major distribution point for the drug in the U.S. On Nov. 6, two Columbus men, Francisco Lopez Silva and Carmen Lopez Hernandez, were arrested in Winslow Township, Camden County, with two pounds of meth after driving here.

Those men, along with five Hammonton residents and a Winslow man, all face federal meth-distribution charges.

Earlier this week, Lou Condo, owner of Big Buck Farms in Hammonton, was one of 12 "low-level" crystal meth dealers and "resellers" arrested in the town, authorities said.

Condo, 45, was charged with conspiracy to possess methamphetamine. He hung up the phone when asked to comment yesterday and a man who answered an intercom at the sprawling farm declined to comment.

On Thursday, investigators arrested eight more suspects in Camden County involved in the marijuana side of the operation, including ringleaders Joaquin Rangel-Cardenas of Sicklerville and Hector Martinez of Camden.

At least three additional suspects remain at large.