TAMPA (FOX 13) - A Cuban drug operation busted in Hillsborough County has landed 22 people behind bars. Marijuana - with a street value of $2.3 million - was seized.
A year-long investigation called "Operation Hydro Hustlers" lead the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office to 10 grow houses, where hydroponic marijuana was being harvested.
"The houses are often rented by individuals at the direction of a particular drug trafficking leader," said Sheriff David Gee in a news conference Thursday.
The homes did not appear to be unusual on the outside, but on the other side of the door, investigators found entire rooms filled with marijuana plants and elaborate equipment to grow them.
Deputies seized 591 plants, weighing 872 pounds, as well as 46 pounds worth of packaged and processed hydroponic-grown weed.
"This is not the marijuana of yesteryears. The level of THC in this marijuana is very, very high," Sheriff Goe explained.
Julio Alvarez, 42, was identified as the ring leader of the operation and arrested this week. Alvarez came to Tampa Bay from Miami, according to Sheriff Gee. He employed dozens of people, who then rented houses and put utilities bills into their own names, to run the grow houses from.
Alvarez also paid electricians to hook up several additional electric outlets and air conditioning units in the houses to create an optimal growing environment.
The renters would spend up to $20,000 to equip a grow house with high-powered light bulbs, air conditioning units and privacy fences. They often used stolen credit cards to pay the costs and were reimbursed once the weed was harvested.
"Our communities cannot tolerate this type of criminal behavior," said Mark Ober, Hillsborough State Attorney. "To all those that are involved, we will see you in the courtroom, and we will let the process play out on each case."
Of the 22 people arrested, most of them are facing manufacturing and racketeering charges. Racketeering is a felony with a maximum of 30 years in prison.
Five suspects involved in the operation are still wanted, but authorities fear they may have fled to Cuba.