- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 2, 2000

Federal agents, in a sweeping coast-to-coast investigation, have smashed a major drug-smuggling ring with ties to the Middle East, arresting more than 140 people linked to a nationwide methamphetamine syndicate.
The arrests culminated an undercover probe by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration known as "Operation Mountain Express" and dismantled a drug syndicate known as the "Commission," which supplied pseudoephedrine to clandestine labs to turn into methamphetamine.
The investigation, announced yesterday by Attorney General Janet Reno and DEA Administrator Donnie R. Marshall, began in December and seized $8 million in cash. Agents also confiscated 10 metric tons of pseudoephedrine capable of producing 18,000 pounds of methamphetamine, 83 pounds of finished methamphetamine, two pseudoephedrine extraction laboratories, one methamphetamine laboratory and 136 pounds of processing chemicals.
"The operation should have a significant impact on methamphetamine trafficking in the United States by limiting the availability of pseudoephedrine and deterring others who might be considering the illicit diversion of chemicals and pharmaceuticals," Miss Reno said.
Eight of those arrested, described as leaders of the Commission, routed drug profits to the Middle East, according to the DEA, including Hassan Zaghmot, taken into custody by agents in Denver. Agents confiscated from Mr. Zaghmot's safe-deposit box the $650,000 that authorities said he planned to use to flee the country.
Most of the arrests occurred during the course of the investigation, although 40 suspected drug dealers have been taken into custody by agents since Friday.
DEA agents raided 66 locations to close down 18 pseudoephedrine companies, most of which were controlled by the Commission.
"This was the first time that U.S. law enforcement has been able to connect a major group of pseudoephedrine distributors directly to U.S.-based, Mexican-controlled methamphetamine laboratory operators," said Joe Keefe, who heads the DEA's special operations division.
Commonly known as "meth," "speed," "crank" or "ice," methamphetamine initially produced by laboratories in California is described by the DEA as one of the most dangerous drugs on the street today. In the past several years, its production and use have spread eastward, fueled by drug-trafficking rings with headquarters in Mexico and backed financially by other organizations in the acquisition of precursor chemicals.
A pound of methamphetamine usually sells for $14,000 to $15,000, although DEA officials said the undercover operation would drive up the price of the drug as dealers scramble to fill the void created by Operation Mountain Express.
The DEA said the Commission set the price of pseudoephedrine, determined how it would be transported, sent profits from its sale to Israel, Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia and set up front companies to buy and ship pseudoephedrine tablets to methamphetamine laboratories in southern California.
The undercover probe kicked into high gear in April when DEA agents seized 1,200 pounds of pseudoephedrine and several million dollars in cash, arresting 14 couriers.
The surprise arrests and seizures sparked an emergency meeting of the Commission on April 18 in Kissimmee, Fla. a meeting investigators learned about through the use of informants, electronic surveillance and undercover agents.
Investigators learned from informants who attended the meeting that the Commission had agreed to use only white Americans as couriers to avoid police suspicions, to change often their unwitting commercial courier companies for fear some would develop law enforcement ties and to assemble money and plans for quick escapes from this country if there were further raids.
The DEA noted that pseudoephedrine tablets are legally imported for over-the-counter cold and allergy remedies, costing about $450 for a pound of tablets for legitimate use. But the drug dealers bought the tablets from legitimate importers for $1,500 a pound for shipment through front companies to the West Coast for sale to clandestine methamphetamine labs for $4,000 a pound.
During the operation, agents also made arrests, seized property or sought civil enforcement actions to close down pseudoephedrine companies in the District, Richmond, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Missouri, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Colorado, Nevada, Washington, Oregon and California.

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