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Press Release

South Gate Man Pleads Guilty to Leading Drug Trafficking Ring that Used Modified ‘Trap Cars’ to Transport and Distribute Narcotics

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Central District of California

LOS ANGELES – A South Gate man pleaded guilty today to a federal narcotics charge for leading a drug trafficking ring that imported drugs, including cocaine and heroin, from Mexico, then used modified BMWs with hidden trap compartments to distribute those drugs throughout the United States.

Joel Antonio Villegas, 35, a.k.a. “Junior,” pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute controlled substances.

According to his plea agreement, from at least November 2017 to September 2019, Villegas led a drug trafficking organization that imported from Mexico to the United States kilogram quantities of cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and hashish oil. As the conspiracy’s organizer and manager, Villegas picked up the drugs and arranged for their sale to customers or fellow conspirators.

Villegas ordered other conspirators to purchase cars – including BMWs – and modify them by installing hidden trap compartments so other members of the organization could conceal and transport narcotics and drug proceeds on the organization’s behalf.

Villegas delegated to other conspirators the coordination of cross-border caravans using couriers and other so-called “trap cars” to pick up drugs – including cocaine and heroin – in Mexico and transport them into the United States.

He also operated a stash house containing cocaine, marijuana, and hashish oil as well as materials to manufacture and distribute drugs, including packaging materials, pill presses, drug ledgers, and money counters. Villegas also possessed firearms at his residence to protect the organization’s drug proceeds.

In September 2019, when law enforcement executed a warrant at Villegas’ residence and called him on his telephone and ordered him to come outside, Villegas set fire to numerous paper journals, including drug ledgers and pay/owe sheets. He also broke several cellphones and other digital devices and attempted to break even more. Villegas admitted in his plea agreement that he willfully impeded and obstructed the administration of justice by doing so.

In addition to multiple firearms Villegas possessed at his residence, law enforcement also recovered $127,307 in cash and jewelry, including three Rolex watches and one golden necklace, all of which were purchased with the organization’s drug proceeds.

That same day, law enforcement executed a search warrant at a Downey stash house that Villegas’ organization used and seized approximately 882 grams (1.9 pounds) of heroin, approximately 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of marijuana, and 81.3 grams of hashish oil, as well as a money counter, pill press machine, and drug paraphernalia, among other items.

In total, the conspiracy involved at least approximately 3.9 kilograms (8.6 pounds) of heroin, approximately 52 kilograms (114.6 pounds) of cocaine, approximately 25 kilograms (55.1 pounds) of marijuana, and approximately 186.2 grams of hashish oil.

United States District Judge André Birotte Jr. scheduled an August 30 sentencing hearing, at which time Villegas will face a statutory maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

The FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, IRS-Criminal Investigation, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the California Highway Patrol, the Pasadena Police Department, the South Gate Police Department, and the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office investigated this matter with the support of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF).

Assistant United States Attorneys Kyle W. Kahan of the International Narcotics, Money Laundering, and Racketeering Section, Jena A. MacCabe of the Violent and Organized Crime Section, and A. Carley Palmer of the Criminal Appeals Section are prosecuting this case.

This case is part of an Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces (OCDETF) operation. OCDETF identifies, disrupts, and dismantles the highest-level criminal organizations that threaten the United States using a prosecutor-led, intelligence-driven, multi-agency approach. Additional information about the OCDETF Program can be found at   


Ciaran McEvoy
Public Information Officer
(213) 894-4465

Updated May 13, 2024

Drug Trafficking
Press Release Number: 24-111