- The Washington Times - Friday, January 11, 2002

Federal agents yesterday shut down two major drug-trafficking rings operated by Middle Eastern men in a sweeping coast-to-coast investigation that targeted more than 100 suspected smugglers in a nationwide methamphetamine conspiracy.

Drug Enforcement Administration agents took the suspected smugglers into custody in raids from Los Angeles to Wilmington, Del., as part of Operation Mountain Express, a continuing undercover drug investigation that has disrupted the flow of pseudoephedrine to clandestine laboratories in California.

Pseudoephedrine, a common over-the-counter cold medication, is the key ingredient in the production of methamphetamine.

Fifty-four persons were taken into custody as agents swept through a dozen cities in California, Arizona, Texas, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and Delaware. Another 67 persons had already been arrested as part of the 12-month undercover operation.

DEA agents served 49 search warrants, confiscated 96 automobiles, seized $360,000 in cash, closed down nine large-scale methamphetamine laboratories, took possession of three luxury homes and shut down four businesses including car dealerships in Detroit and Chicago run by the suspected smugglers.

"We have dismantled two nationwide criminal networks that were trafficking multiton amounts of pseudoephedrine to methamphetamine producers in the United States," said DEA Administrator Asa Hutchinson.

"I believe we are making progress on the methamphetamine problem in our nation our strategy is working."

DEA agents, working with U.S. Customs Service officers, targeted for the first time bulk suppliers of pseudoephedrine from Canada, from whom the suspected smugglers obtained and then transported multiton quantities of pseudoephedrine into this country. The drug was then sold either directly or through brokers to Mexican nationals operating meth labs in the United States.

Mr. Hutchinson said the bulk supplies of pseudoephedrine were transported into the United States aboard tractor trailers across the border at Detroit, housed partly in Chicago and then shipped aboard tractor-trailers to methamphetamine labs in California. Some of the trucks, he said, were disguised as FedEx and U.S. Mail trucks.

He said that while the majority of the traffickers are of Middle Eastern descent and they sent some of their illicit profits to the Middle East, there was no specific information that they were tied to international terrorists or to groups that support terrorism.

But, he said, the DEA was "continuing to follow the money trail" to make sure.

DEA officials said most of those arrested were in this country on visas and were mainly from Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Kuwait and Mexico.

Mr. Hutchinson also said one of the reasons the suspected smugglers went to Canada to buy pseudoephedrine is because the drug is not regulated in that country making it lawful to "load up a semi-trailer truckload in Canada of pseudoephedrine."

He said that during 2000, Canada imported 55 metric tons of pseudoephedrine and that during Operation Mountain Express, the DEA seized 16 metric tons coming into the United States more than a quarter of all the pseudoephedrine Canada had imported.

"We are hopeful this operation will move forward legislation in Canada that will regulate pseudoephedrine that is such a problem in the United States," he said.

Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner, who attended the news conference, noted that during the past nine months customs inspectors at the U.S.-Canada border seized 110 million pseudoephedrine tablets about 60,000 pounds bound for the United States.

"This case indicates that Canada has become the major source of pseudoephedrine used for the illegal manufacture of methamphetamine in the United States, meth that is then sold on the streets and towns and rural areas across the United States illegally," Mr. Bonner said. "And meth is a particularly nasty and pernicious and addictive drug."

Commonly known as "meth," "speed," "crank" or "ice," methamphetamine is described by the DEA as one of the most dangerous drugs on the street today. In the past several years, its use has 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 on the street for about $12,000.

The first phase of the Mountain Express operation ended in August 2000 when DEA agents arrested 140 persons in eight cities. They also seized $8 million in cash, 10 metric tons of pseudoephedrine tablets, 83 pounds of finished methamphetamine, two pseudoephedrine extraction labs, one methamphetamine lab and 136 pounds of chemical solvents and reagents.


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