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El Chapo drug rival, linked to East Grand Forks murder, wanted in ND federal court

Mexico's top drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted as he arrives at Long Island MacArthur airport in New York, after his extradition from Mexico. Authorities have linked him to Juan Sillas-Rocha, whom investigators said trafficked drugs to North Dakota. (U.S. officials/Handout via REUTERS)

FARGO—Federal prosecutors in North Dakota are after a Mexican cartel leader connected to "Operation Speed Racer," an investigation that resulted in dozens of convictions after the shooting death of an East Grand Forks resident more than 10 years ago.

Documents that were unsealed Tuesday by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Fargo revealed a 2011 indictment and arrest warrant for Juan Francisco Sillas-Rocha. He has been named by authorities as a top contributor for the Arellano Felix cartel, which has smuggled numerous drugs into the U.S. in competition against the Sinaloa cartel headed by infamous drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. Guzman was extradited to the U.S. last month to face federal charges in connection with his actions as the head of the cartel.

Authorities have said Sillas-Rocha helped kidnap family members of a Sinaloa cartel leader in 2010. Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada led the cartel alongside Guzman, with media reports describing the two as rivals.

In the North Dakota case, court documents alleged Sillas-Rocha was part of a conspiracy to distribute more than 500 grams of meth-mixed drugs in North Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Washington, California and other places. Prosecutors also said in documents Sillas-Rocha was involved in making arrangements to ship meth and marijuana from Mexico, Washington, California and elsewhere to the Red River Valley for distribution.

"During the course of this conspiracy, in excess of 30,000 grams of a mixture and substance containing a detectable amount of methamphetamine ... was distributed in the Red River Valley area of North Dakota and Minnesota by members of the conspiracy," court documents stated.

Court documents also stated Sillas-Rocha used violence, including murder, kidnapping, human trafficking, public corruption of government officials, assault and other crimes, to further trafficking efforts.

Court documents also said he ordered others to kill multiple people, including entire families and a girl with disabilities. No victims were named in the court documents. In some instances, a confidential informant for the government said Sillas-Rocha would pay the CI to murder the targets.

Investigators have connected Sillas-Rocha to Jorge Manuel "Sneaky" Arandas, a member of the Arellano Felix cartel who was sentenced in 2008 to 40 years in prison for importing drugs to the Red River Valley. Arandas was arrested after investigators launched "Operation Speed Racer," a massive investigation that netted more than 60 convictions related to the drug ring.

Arandas faced multiple charges, including for the 2005 shooting death of 28-year-old Lee Avila in East Grand Forks. Forum News Service archives state the shooting was carried out in front of two children, including one of Avila's.

Investigators said Arandas ordered Avila's death because Arandas failed to pay for five pounds of meth the drug dealer in the Red River Valley had received from Sillas-Rocha, according to media reports. Arandas told investigators he killed Avila out of fear as a display of strength.

Sillas-Rocha originally was indicted Aug. 20, 2008 in federal court for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and distribute controlled substances. The other charges were added in 2011. Those charges have been under seal until early last week.

Sillas-Rocha faces charges of conspiracy to commit murder in the furtherance of a continuing criminal enterprise and aiding and abetting, conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and distribute controlled substances, and one count of continuing criminal enterprise.

Sillas-Rocha was arrested in 2011 by Mexican authorities. Authorities claim he is responsible for the death of dozens of people.

He has been fighting extradition to the U.S. and remains jailed in Mexico.

No hearings have been set for Sillas-Rocha. North Dakota's U.S. Attorney Christopher Myers declined to comment on the story.

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers business and political stories. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family continues to raise registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as the Dickinson city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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