BOSTON -- The largest fentanyl distribution operation in the state was a dial-up delivery service based in Lawrence that sent drugs to buyers throughout New England, law enforcement officials said.

More than 30 people involved in the ring -- including some who were previously deported -- now face federal drug, firearm and immigration charges following a year-long federal investigation that culminated with dozens of arrests early Tuesday, according to U.S. attorney's office.

Members of the U.S. attorney's office described a multimillion dollar operation led by Juan Anibel Patrone, 26, a Dominican national believed to have entered the United States illegally. The “sophisticated and lucrative drug ring” sold fentanyl-laced heroin and cocaine, officials said at a press conference at federal court in Boston Tuesday.

Patrone, of 27 Sheridan St., Lawrence, was arrested Tuesday morning along with about two dozen other suspects named in a May 24 federal indictment.

More than 200 officers and agents met in the neighboring city of Methuen at 4 a.m. Tuesday and then descended on a variety of neighborhoods in Lawrence making the arrests. Those arrested were booked at an undisclosed location in Methuen during the four-hour operation Tuesday morning, police said.

“Couriers working in shifts delivered the drugs and collected the money, often using vehicles outfitted with secret compartments to conceal the drugs,” said acting U.S. Attorney William Weinreb at a briefing at the federal courthouse in Boston.

More than two kilograms of fentanyl and six guns were seized during Tuesday's raids, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, which oversaw the probe.

The fentanyl is believed to have an illegal street value of more than $150,000, police said. 

Others arrested Tuesday morning included Domingo Gonzalez Martinez, 26, a Dominican national living in Lawrence; Oscar Francisco Marcano Valverde, 38, a Dominican national and former resident of Haverhill; Luis Lugo, 20, of Lawrence; Leonel Vives, 30, of Methuen; and Luis Perez-Tomassini, 29, of Lawrence.

"Lawrence is a safer community today because these people are off the streets," Lawrence police Chief James Fitzpatrick said Tuesday. "They’re not only poisoning our community, but they’re doing it throughout the Merrimack Valley.”

Fitzpatrick noted the magnitude of the operation and said this was something a local department could not do alone.

"Not without federal and state law enforcement and the U.S. attorney's office in Boston," Fitzpatrick said. 

Nearly a dozen people charged are believed to be in the country illegally, Weinreb said, and immigration officials were still trying to sort out their status.

“They even bragged about having been deported several times,” he said.

Defendants face federal indictments on a litany of charges including conspiracy to distribute heroin, cocaine and fentanyl; illegal possession of a firearm; and being an unlawful alien, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.

Participating in the investigation were the Department of Homeland Security; state police; police in Lawrence, Haverhill and Andover; and the Essex County district attorney's office, which will prosecute some of the defendants locally.

Like many states, Massachusetts has experienced a surge of fatal overdoses from opioids including heroin and fentanyl. Health officials counted more than 2,000 deaths from accidental opioid overdoses last year.

In 2015, overdoses claimed 1,747 lives statewide, including 236 in Essex County.

Weinreb said wire intercepts used during the investigation recorded some defendants "chuckling about overdose deaths as they continued to distribute the deadly drug."

“Fentanyl and heroin are wreaking havoc on our communities, touching nearly every walk of life,” he said Tuesday. “We’re confident the arrest of Patrone and his crew will make a tangible difference in Lawrence and other communities suffering from the opioid epidemic. A dangerous pipeline for fentanyl and other drugs has been dismantled.”

Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera was pleased with the results of the major operation, which he knew was secretly underway in the city for months.

"It was really exciting to see it come to fruition. I heard about it a while ago but had to keep it under wraps," Rivera noted. 

Rivera noted more than 200 law enforcement officers from a variety of agencies "were on the ground" in Lawrence Tuesday morning making arrests. 

"But I'm not sure anybody should be celebrating just yet. There's still a lot of work to do in Lawrence," Rivera noted. 

He said he appreciated the diligence and patience that went into the operation and stressed Lawrence police will continue working with federal and state partners.

"So all the progress we are making doesn't go backwards," Rivera said. 

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill. 

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