WASHINGTON — Federal authorities said Thursday that they have broken up a Los Angeles-based drug trafficking operation that used the Federal Express overnight delivery system to ship tons of marijuana across the United States.
Sweeping into FedEx warehouses and offices across the country, federal agents on Thursday arrested 22 drivers, customer service representatives and security agents--including 10 in Los Angeles--who they allege packed the marijuana into FedEx boxes, placed bogus labels on them and handed them over to dealers parked along delivery routes.
FedEx shipped more than 4,000 boxes of drugs across the country, federal officials said. Like the majority of the packages FedEx handles, the shipments were picked up by 4 p.m. and delivered by 10 a.m. the next day.
The scheme was masterminded by Mark Morant, 33, a Jamaican drug lord working out of a Western Avenue warehouse, Drug Enforcement Administration officials said. He bribed dozens of FedEx employees over a span of at least two years to ship more than 121 tons of marijuana from Southern California to dealers in New York, New Jersey, Boston and hundreds of cities and towns across the East Coast, officials said.
As of Thursday evening, Morant was still being sought.
One of the world's most powerful drug cartels, the Tijuana-based Arellano Felix gang, smuggled the marijuana to the Jamaican traffickers in Southern California, said Joe Keefe, head of the DEA's special operations division. But the scheme to use FedEx trucks, planes and warehouses was the brainchild of Morant, Keefe said.
Workers in Ring Made $2,000 a Week
For their labors, FedEx employees pocketed more than $2,000 a week each from the traffickers, whether packages were delivered or not, he said.
FedEx officials, who cooperated with DEA agents during the 20-month investigation, said that never before to their knowledge has their delivery service been used to transport such large quantities of illicit goods. The cartel apparently was able to corrupt employees throughout FedEx, from drivers to clerks to warehouse workers.
More than 100 people involved in the distribution network have been arrested since July 1998, 45 of them on Thursday, the DEA said. By Thursday evening, with arrests continuing, federal agents had seized 17 tons of marijuana, $4 million in assets and 18 weapons. Arrests were made in California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Georgia and Florida.
Law enforcement officials from the Los Angeles and Long Beach police departments and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department participated in the operation.
"The message of this case is clear," said U.S. Customs Commissioner Raymond Kelly. "If you absolutely, positively want to send your contraband overnight, don't use FedEx."
But that is exactly what the Jamaican traffickers did for several years at least, DEA officials estimated. By the time a FedEx employee set off the DEA investigation when he smelled the powerful odor of marijuana after a package had fallen open, federal authorities said the distribution network was fully operational.
Using marijuana supplied by Silvestre Rendon, a Mexican national in Los Angeles working with the Tijuana cartel, traffickers at the unmarked Western Avenue warehouse wrapped the sticky, strong-smelling leaves in dozens of layers of cellophane sprinkled with laundry detergent and fabric softener to mask the odor, federal officials said. Rendon was among those arrested Thursday.
Packed by corrupted FedEx employees in boxes bearing the company's distinctive logo, the marijuana was loaded onto FedEx trucks and planes by other, often unsuspecting employees who sent it along to powerful Jamaican distribution cells in the Northeast.
Because corrupt FedEx customer service representatives created bogus shipping labels for the packages, the drug traffickers reaped a side benefit from the operation: free nationwide shipping.
Authorities said that almost none of the marijuana was sold on the streets of Los Angeles, where the Jamaicans were outnumbered and outgunned by rival gangs. The drugs were shipped on FedEx planes from Los Angeles International Airport to the company's operations hub in Memphis, Tenn., and then on to Newark and John F. Kennedy international airports in the New York City area. The packages were addressed to companies that did not exist, often at well-known locations. One shipment was delivered to dealers in the parking lot of the Empire State Building.
FedEx Launched Own Inquiry Into Scheme
Couriers brought the proceeds of the sales back to the Los Angeles traffickers on commercial flights, wearing as much as $100,000 in cash in belts strapped to their bodies, federal officials said.
FedEx employees, meanwhile, hoarded the cash they collected each Friday, federal agents said. On Thursday agents searching a FedEx employee's house in New Jersey discovered $20,000 in a shoe box under his bed.