In the drug world, investigators say, the young man with the goatee was "El Michoacáno," nicknamed for the violent state in Mexico from which his purported product hails.

For his status in the American suburb where he allegedly set up shop, however, authorities have given Charbel Pita Rosales another nickname. They call him "Kingpin of Prussia."

In a case winding its way through Montgomery County courts, the emerging portrait of this 28-year-old Upper Merion resident is of a man at the vanguard of a disturbing shift in the region's drug landscape.

The traffickers are nimble, says Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman. In a high-stakes game of Whac-a-Mole with law enforcement, they have learned to play the mole.

"Major drug-trafficking organizations are looking for safer places that they can set up shop," Ferman said. "They're trying to stay away from urban areas like Philadelphia and New York because they have many more law enforcement resources.

"A sleepy, suburban community where nothing bad is supposed to happen - what better place for a drug trafficker to be?"

Code words and a killing

The portrait of Rosales and his associates emerges from detectives' sworn accounts, and from pages of text messages intercepted and phone calls wiretapped. It's a story of coded phrases and a deaf-mute courier, of word of a killing making its way north, and of a notoriously violent Mexican cartel allegedly opening a branch office here - in Unit 612 of a King of Prussia mid-rise, a stone's throw from the mall.

Rosales, who remains in custody, could not be reached for comment. It was unclear whether he or any of the other men arrested in his case had retained attorneys.

Prosecutors allege Rosales and at least six other men ran one of the most sophisticated wholesale cocaine-distribution networks ever to reach into Montgomery County, shipping the narcotic into Upper Merion at a rate exceeding 22 pounds a month - with an estimated street value of more than $280,000 - for the last year.

In stark contrast to the street-level dealers who typically draw suburban authorities' attention, the allegations include not only ties to a violent Mexican cartel but also status as a supplier to dealers in bigger markets such as Reading and Philadelphia.

The purported trade route - with supply lines extending from Nevada, North Carolina, and south Texas - reverses the traditional drug pipeline, prosecutors and law enforcement officials say.

Whispers, then wiretaps

Montgomery County detectives knew they weren't dealing with their typical drug investigation when they began to hear whispers in the summer that a supplier was offering high-quality cocaine at $28,000 per kilogram, about $10,000 below the average street value of the drug in Philadelphia.

That clue, according to detectives close to the investigation, suggested an operator with strong connections to the source of the product.

Those suspicions were confirmed after months of wiretaps and the execution of a search warrant at the mid-rise Marquis Apartments near the upscale King of Prussia mall.

Investigators believe it was there, between apartments housing young families and Villanova University students, that Rosales set up shop.

By autumn, authorities had amassed enough evidence to go in. They raided Unit 612 on Oct. 8. Inside, amid cocaine, cutting agents, and drug scales, they found a shrine dedicated to Jesus Malverde, a Mexican folk figure.

Though unrecognized by the Catholic Church, Malverde is worshiped as a saint by drug traffickers in Mexico.

Court records detailing wiretapped conversations between Rosales and his alleged associates suggest strong ties to a specific group - La Familia, a drug cartel based in the southern Mexican state of Michoacán.

In text messages quoted in arrest affidavits, an alleged member of the Upper Merion organization appeared to negotiate prices with a supplier thousands of miles away - a man known only as "Guarache," in the Mexican coastal city of Colima.

Another series of calls, between purported Rosales associate Jose Maria "Gemma" Cuevas-Sanchez and a relative in Michoacán, updated the group on a gun battle between purported La Familia operatives and Mexican military forces.

"They killed Jaimito. . . . They killed him yesterday," a woman told Cuevas-Sanchez of the Oct. 4 encounter in Apatzingán, about 200 miles from Mexico City.

That melee, punctuated by bursts of gunfire and grenade explosions, injured more than 15 federal agents and killed at least two.

For Ferman, the district attorney, the reference to the gun battle underscores the importance of trying to root out the tentacles of such organizations before they take hold in the suburbs.

"We are talking about major drug dealers who are trying to come into our community to set up shop," she said. "This isn't just about drugs but the type of violence that is typically attended to these organizations."

But if the wiretaps purport to show the suburban group's ties to foreign drug lords, they also offer glimpses of the troubles even sophisticated traffickers could encounter in moving their product to markets such as the Philadelphia region.

On several occasions throughout September and October, authorities said, detectives observed Rosales - shepherded by a bodyguard - conducting business with buyers in the booths and back rooms of Mexican-owned restaurants and watering holes across Norristown.

Time was money. In a Sept. 20 conversation, a man identified in court records as Rosales pressed a supplier in North Carolina for a promised load of cocaine, noting that further delay would only hurt his business.

The North Carolina man, whom Montgomery County authorities have identified as 29-year-old Arturo Jeronimo "A.J." Velazquez, promised to check on availability.

"I'll advise you," he is quoted as saying. "If not, I'll come and give you what there is."

Investigators' targets seemed wary of eavesdroppers. The group coded its references to associates who had been arrested, referring to them as "on vacation," or "in hospital," or "at school."

But it was a shipment from Las Vegas, shepherded cross-country by a deaf-mute courier, that led to Rosales' arrest.

As detectives looked on, Rosales, Velazquez, and the alleged Nevada courier entered the garage of a Norristown home carrying an empty box, according to the arrest affidavit.

When Rosales allegedly emerged carrying the same box - now apparently loaded down with weight - they swooped in, seizing more than two pounds of cocaine and a Dodge Nitro parked outside with a hidden compartment believed to have been used to ship the drugs.

Over the next few days, four more men were charged with various offenses under state drug laws for alleged roles in Rosales' organization. Nine others, purportedly involved in marketing the drugs supplied by the Rosales group, face charges in Berks County.

All have been held for trial and await preliminary hearings in the region's courtrooms.

The sooner they get in front of judges and juries, the better, Ferman said.

"We looked to build a case as quickly as possible," she said. "We want to make sure these types of operations never get a foothold in our community."

Contact staff writer Jeremy Roebuck at 610-313-8212 or jroebuck@phillynews.com.