2 busted in drug sting plead guilty

Ramiro Sanchez-Gaytan (left), Orlando Sanchez-Ramirez (right)

Two brothers in orange jail jumpsuits opted to cooperate with investigators and change their pleas from "not guilty" to "guilty" Tuesday in a series of crimes connected to a notorious Mexican drug cartel with reach from California to Atlanta and on into Charleston.

Ramiro Sanchez-Gaytan, 29, and Orlando Sanchez-Ramirez, 22, worked under a third brother named Armando Ramirez, who prosecutors said coordinated shipments and distribution of powder cocaine, crack cocaine and methamphetamine for the La Familia gang. Authorities said La Familia, known for its violent beheadings, became powerful in part because of its religious roots and self-professed Robin Hood mentality of stealing from the rich to help the poor.

In October 2009, federal agents and police officers made arrests in more than a dozen states, including South Carolina, seizing kilos of cocaine, pounds of meth and marijuana, guns, cars and even drug labs. That sweep included the three brothers' arrests.

Ramirez, the accused ring leader locally, pleaded guilty to a host of charges in January. Another three men remain primed for trial under "not guilty" pleas in the same case.

One at a time, Sanchez-Gaytan and his baby-faced brother, Sanchez-Ramirez, stood with their court-appointed attorneys and listened to U.S. District Court Judge Sol Blatt with a Spanish-speaking interpreter's help Tuesday. They answered "Si, senor" or "No, senor" to the judge's questions.

Each man faces a maximum sentence of life in prison and several millions of dollars in fines on charges related to drug trafficking and illegal financial transactions. Blatt explained that if the men cooperate with the investigation and "render substantial assistance" in the cases, prosecutors might ask for lesser sentences than the minimum each charge requires by law.

The brothers lived together locally with a fourth man and a child, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Phillips. He said investigators found a 9 mm handgun in a dresser drawer, a scale for weighing drugs, and large amounts of cash, $92,000 of which was strewn about the trailer.

Federal agents captured video of Sanchez-Gaytan delivering drugs to an informant, Phillips said. Sanchez-Gaytan also took instructions from his brother to wire drug money out of South Carolina, sometimes to Mexico, and to pick up more drugs from stash houses in Atlanta, Phillips said.

The younger brother, Sanchez-Ramirez, primarily dealt drugs locally, according to Phillips. Federal agents witnessed Sanchez-Ramirez selling drugs to an informant and tapped phone conversations about wiring money back to Mexico and to California.

Sanchez-Ramirez previously had been deported from the U.S. in late 2007.

La Familia, based in southwestern Mexico, is philosophically opposed to selling meth to Mexicans and instead exports the drug to the U.S. The group's leader, Nazario Moreno Gonzalez -- known as "El Mas Loco" or "the craziest one" -- died in a police shoot-out in Michoacan, Mexico, late last year.

Reach Allyson Bird at 937-5594.