Locked up but not stopped: Georgia prisoners run drug-trafficking networks
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include another 2022 drug trafficking indictment and additional details of a May 2020 drug trafficking investigation.
When federal prosecutors announced their massive Operation Ghost Busted case in January, the charges revealed a startling reality: the massive drug trafficking operation had a home base inside Georgia’s state prison system.
The operation ran illegal drugs across 10 counties in South Georgia and inside state prisons in a case that is believed to be the largest ever in Georgia’s Southern District. One of the masterminds was James D. NeSmith, who helped orchestrate the operation despite being behind bars, serving a life sentence for murder. Others serving time in Georgia’s prisons and a corrupt correctional officer were also part of the operation, according to the federal charges.
While “Ghost Busted” is a record-setting case, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found it is just one of many large, complex drug trafficking operations run by Georgia prison inmates, often with the help of prison employees. From 2015 to 2022, the AJC found, federal prosecutors have filed 21 major cases involving drug trafficking operations run from inside at least 25 Georgia state correctional facilities.
The drug operations can empower prisoners, who get rich from the schemes and can bribe officers to either bring in phones or drugs or become part of the operations that often have ties to violence or fatal overdoses inside and outside state prisons. The cases also underscore the pervasive gang activity in the state’s prisons.
These are the 21 cases.
December 2022 (Operation Ghost Busted)
Telfair, Johnson, Dooly and Valdosta state prisons, Coffee Correctional Facility, Emanuel Women’s Facility and Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison
Prosecutors said inmates were involved in a drug network that operated for years in southeast Georgia, distributing meth, heroin, fentanyl and other drugs. The drugs resulted in at least three overdose deaths, prosecutors said. Overall, the federal investigation, dubbed Operation Ghost Busted, led to charges against 76 defendants, many of them affiliated with white supremacist gangs. Among those indicted were seven people already in prison at the time of the indictment and one correctional officer. All entered guilty pleas.
Calhoun State Prison
While serving an 8-year state prison sentence for drug trafficking, Pedro Barragan Valencia brokered the distribution of at least 250 kilograms of meth, federal prosecutors alleged in an indictment unsealed this month. The indictment also accused 21 other men and women of trafficking meth, heroin, fentanyl and other drugs in middle Georgia. In December 2023, Valencia, a member of the Sureños gang, was sentenced to 400 months in prison on the federal charges. Four of Valencia’s co-defendants in the case had previously served state prison sentences in Georgia.
Calhoun, Pulaski, Floyd and Dooly state prisons and Ware County and Brantley County detention centers
Prosecutors say prisoners led a drug ring that operated in at least seven Georgia counties as far back as 2018. Leading it was Jonathan Alvin Pope, a Calhoun inmate. Thirteen others were indicted, and seven of them were also incarcerated in Georgia prisons. They used contraband cellphones and other devices to coordinate the network, which distributed meth, heroin and fentanyl, according to Justice Department officials. Pope, who was serving time for possession with intent to distribute meth and marijuana, pleaded guilty in May. He was sentenced in September to 20 years in federal prison.
Dooly State Prison
Inmate Magnum Jelani Neely used contraband cellphones to lead a drug ring in the Augusta area. The phone allowed him to contact drug couriers to deliver meth to buyers inside and outside Georgia prisons. In January, he was sentenced to 278 months in federal prison after pleading guilty. Three co-defendants also pleaded guilty.
Jenkins Correctional Facility
While a GDC inmate, Alfonso Roman Brito, AKA “Casper,” was coordinating the shipments of meth from the Atlanta area into western North Carolina. Between 2019 and fall 2021, prosecutors said, Brito orchestrated the delivery of more than 100 kilograms of meth. He was found guilty by a federal jury in North Carolina.
Calhoun and Augusta state prisons
Two inmates were directing a heroin and meth trafficking network. Eric Gilbert, who was serving time for meth trafficking at Calhoun, was sentenced to 228 months in federal prison, and Joseph Collins, who was incarcerated at Augusta State Medical Prison and had a 2012 conviction for manufacturing meth, was sentenced to 240 months, after each pleaded guilty.
Dooly and Washington state prisons
Inmates Carmelo Reyes-Lozano and Bautista Toledo-Ramirez led a drug ring that distributed meth in metro Atlanta. After authorities intercepted communications between the inmates, they raided a drug house in Clayton County and found 588 kilograms of meth and 100 gallons of liquid meth. At least a dozen others were involved in the trafficking ring, authorities said. Both inmates pleaded guilty. Reyes-Lozano, who had a prior conviction for trafficking meth, was sentenced to 17 years, six months in prison; Toledo-Ramirez, who was serving a sentence for felony murder, was sentenced to 23 years.
May 2020 (Operation Sandy Bottom)
Coffee Correctional Facility and Wheeler and Dooly state prisons
Aided by Georgia state correctional officers, inmates helped operate a drug trafficking network that controlled multiple “trap houses” and distributed meth, cocaine and other drugs in several parts of Georgia. At least three Georgia state correctional officers were accused of working with gang members to smuggle contraband and illegal drugs to inmates. All told, 48 people were charged in what investigators called Operation Sandy Bottom. Prosecutors said that leading the conspiracy was Dooly inmate Jackie Kavaskia McMillan, who was serving a sentence for murder. In 2022, he was sentenced to 444 months in federal prison for his role in the drug network.
May 2020 (Operation Wu Block)
Wilcox State Prison, Wheeler Correctional Facility, Jenkins Correctional Facility, Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison
A two-year investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI led to criminal charges against 82 people and seizures of kilos of meth and heroin. At least four Georgia inmates were among those charged. Frankie Baza, of Gwinnett, serving a 25-year sentence for trafficking meth at Wilcox State Prison, pleaded guilty in February 2021 to conspiring to distribute meth from prison and was later sentenced to 200 months in federal prison. Malcody Dinges, serving a sentence at Wheeler after pleading guilty to trafficking meth and assault on a peace officer, used contraband cellphones to direct others where to obtain meth in Atlanta and bring it to Athens for distribution. He was sentenced in May 2022 to 240 months in federal prison. David “Toro” Zavala, of Gordon County, serving a sentence at Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison for armed robbery, was also indicted. Court documents show that at the time of Zavala’s guilty plea, officers had seized 35 cellphones from him. In October 2023, Zavala was sentenced to 330 months in federal prison. Bruce “Bruno” Hicks, of Athens, in Jenkins Correctional Facility for drug trafficking, was sentenced in January 2020 to 260 months.
March 2020 (Operation Stranded Bandit)
Wheeler Correctional Facility, Lee State Prison, Chatham County Detention Center, and a GDC facility in Milledgeville
Prisoners used smuggled cellphones to coordinate a drug trafficking operation from Mexico to coastal and South Georgia. The network operated at least as early as 2017 and distributed meth, cocaine, MDMA and other drugs, prosecutors said. The inmates were among 35 people, many of them associated with gangs, charged in Operation Stranded Bandit.
Washington State Prison
A man serving a 20-year sentence for aggravated assault led a methamphetamine network that authorities believed in one year alone had distributed more than 200 pounds of crystal meth in Volusia County, Florida. Inmate Jeffery White was identified as the ringleader, but nearly 40 other arrest warrants were issued for others said to be involved in the trafficking operation, which also distributed fentanyl and marijuana.
Dooly and Washington state prisons
A drug ring led by an inmate serving a sentence for drug trafficking distributed illicit drugs in Georgia prisons and throughout metro Atlanta. Jesus Sanchez-Morales was the leader, and four other inmates were among the 34 defendants in the case. The organization repeatedly threatened violence to uncooperative members, prosecutors said. Agents seized more than 175 kilograms of meth, 25 gallons of liquid meth, 12,000 fentanyl pills and other quantities of fentanyl powder, heroin and marijuana.
November 2018 (Operation Vanilla Gorilla)
Various state prisons and jails
At several Georgia prisons and jails, affiliates of the white supremacist street gang Ghost Face Gangsters were trafficking meth, cocaine, marijuana and other drugs throughout eastern Georgia and beyond. Prosecutors said the conspiracy started in 2015. A federal investigation called Operation Vanilla Gorilla resulted in charges against 43 men and women.
Calhoun State Prison
Inmate Edwin Murillo of Gwinnett County, serving a sentence for crimes including the sale of meth, brokered major meth sales in several northeast Georgia counties. He also was found to have 76 grams of pure meth in his cell. Murillo used a phone to direct a Watkinsville woman to dealers, and she would pay him $500 for each connection, sending the money to places he designated. In April 2019, he was sentenced to 300 months in federal prison. In September 2023, the drug ringleader was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to directing the 2021 torture, murder and dismemberment of a woman kidnapped from Plaza Fiesta Shopping Mall in DeKalb County. According to news reports, Murillo ordered the woman’s murder because the “business relationship” he had with her had collapsed and he no longer trusted her.
Wheeler Correctional Facility
A man serving sentences for trafficking meth in Gwinnett and Clayton counties used a contraband cellphone to broker the illegal distribution of kilos of meth to known drug dealers. They distributed it across the state. Inmate Jose Calderon pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 262 months in prison.
Smith State Prison
A gang member serving time for cocaine trafficking helped run a meth trafficking operation, even as he was segregated from the general inmate population for 23 hours a day, according to federal prosecutors. Ricardo Silva, from Lawrenceville, coordinated deliveries from a source in Mexico, and agents later seized more than 100 pounds of both liquid and crystal meth. He was sentenced to 35 years in federal prison.
A 23-year-old prisoner serving a sentence for burglary used a contraband cellphone to direct the delivery of methamphetamine in the Fitzgerald area. Six others were convicted in the scheme. The inmate, Irvin Falcon, was sentenced to 260 months in federal prison.
Daniel Roger Alo, AKA ”Marco Polo” and “boss man,” was serving a life sentence for armed robbery, aggravated assault and kidnapping, when he created a meth trafficking business. He carried out the scheme using cellphones smuggled in by corrupt guards and dropped by drones into the prison. Gangs helped distribute the drugs in Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia and other parts of the Southeast. Alo was one of more than 20 defendants convicted in the investigation. Among them was Jason Prince, a former cellmate of Alo’s. Authorities seized more than $600,00 in cash. Alo was sentenced to 29 years in federal prison; Prince was sentenced to 10 years.
February 2016 (Operation Ghost Guard)
Macon, Phillips, Baldwin, Dooly, Dodge, Pulaski, Autry and Hancock state prisons and Riverbend Correctional Facility
After a two-year investigation called Operation Ghost Guard, federal criminal charges were filed against 46 GDC correctional officers. Some were on GDC’s COBRA squad, whose function is to intercept prison drug deals. Guards typically were paid $500 to $1,000 for smuggling in cellphones, and more for protecting what they believed to be drug shipments in a sting operation. Prosecutors noted that while inmates used contraband phones to organize the trafficking of meth and cocaine, they also used jury scams and other fraud to get the money to bribe guards.
Hancock and Valdosta state prisons and Coastal Transition Center
Three inmates used cellphones to operate a network distributing crystal meth in metro Atlanta and elsewhere, according to an indictment unsealed in January 2016. Among the 14 others charged were brokers, distributors and runners for the drug deals, prosecutors said. The three inmates also were charged with possessing meth with the intent to distribute it.
Valdosta and Phillips state prisons
A dozen people, including seven inmates, a former prison guard and a kitchen worker, were indicted on drug trafficking, extortion, wire fraud and identity theft charges. Meth, prescription pain medication, marijuana and other drugs were involved. In return for bribes, GDC employees helped smuggle cellphones, drugs and other contraband. In one instance, prosecutors said an inmate allegedly used a cellphone to arrange a hit on another inmate.
NOTE: Correctional facilities listed were either noted in case files or were the locations of inmates when charged in the drug cases.