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North Hollywood body shop busted in federal drug investigation

August 29, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
An auto body shop in North Hollywood was raided Wednesday morning. Investigators say it was actually a front for a major drug smuggling operation stretching from Mexico all across Southern California.

It was billed as a body repair shop, a business tucked away in a small corner location with several other auto repair shops around it. But federal officials say it was a front for drug trafficking.

"Methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine, and then of course smuggling the proceeds of the sales of those narcotics out of the United States to Mexico," said Claude Arnold, Homeland Security Investigations.

Wednesday morning agents moved in and removed several boxes of evidence. U.S. Immigration and Customs officials say a 10-month wiretap investigation uncovered a ring of drug importers, couriers and distributors operating all over Southern California.

In the North Hollywood repair shop workers allegedly would modify vehicles to smuggle drugs.

"Put hidden compartments in various vehicles, all types of vehicles. Sometimes they're operated by power, so they open up and you can't see it unless you're aware of where it is," said Arnold.

Business owners next door were hesitant to talk on camera but said the body shop owners would buy junk cars at auction brought them to the shop to be worked on. Neighbors thought they were just being repaired to be resold.

Officials say in just the past three months investigators seized 135 pounds of methamphetamine, 15 kilograms of cocaine and $100,000 in cash.

"This is a significant organization, but this is Los Angeles, so we have definitely seen organizations of this scope before," said Arnold.

Officials arrested 14 people Wednesday. Others allegedly involved in the scheme are out of the country. Officials stress this investigation is just beginning and they say there will be more arrests.

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