- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

GRAND FORKS, N.D. (AP) - An international synthetic drug ring that has been blamed for numerous overdoses in the Grand Forks area involves a Colombian man who trafficked the deadly substances while serving a prison stint in Canada, federal authorities said Tuesday.

Daniel Vivas Ceron, 34, has been charged with five counts, including conspiracy to distribute controlled substances resulting in serious bodily injury and death. He was arrested in Panama City, Panama, and is awaiting extradition to the United States.

Vivas Ceron allegedly operated a business that moved fentanyl and other similar substances from Canada and China into the United States. Authorities declined to give further details.

Court documents to not list an attorney for Vivas Ceron, who faces life in prison without parole.

The arrest is part of an investigation into the international trafficking of powdered fentanyl and other synthetic drugs that began with the overdose death in January of Bailey Henke, 18, of Grand Forks. At least two other people in the area have died and others have been sickened by ingesting substances, investigators say.

“A quote that came out to me from one of the kids is, ‘You’re not living until you’re dying,’” Grand Forks Police Chief Mark Nelson said Tuesday at a news conference meant to alert people about the scope of the problem. “If you don’t want to change that culture, then you’re going to have more deaths.”

The operation has been dubbed “Operation Denial,” which prosecutors say is a reference to both the efforts of law enforcement to deny drugs and the apathy of citizens toward the problem.

“Much of the community here, much of the state and much of the country is in denial as to the dangers posed by drug traffickers,” Myers said.

At least nine other people have been charged in the case, including Brandon Hubbard, 40, of Portland, Oregon, who allegedly told authorities he could be the largest fentanyl dealer in the United States. He has pleaded not guilty to five charges, including conspiracy to distribute controlled substances resulting in death, and is set for trial Sept. 15.

Hubbard’s attorney, Charles Sheeley, declined to comment.

The affidavit says Hubbard told agents that in November that he placed an order with a Canadian source for fentanyl citrate and that the drugs were delivered in FedEx packages from China. Hubbard said he bought about $1.5 million worth of the drugs in November alone, according to court documents.

Five Grand Forks residents, all between the ages of 18 and 20, have pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute charges. Three others are charged in federal court in Oregon.

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