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California and the West

Agents Arrest 148, Disrupting Meth Traffic

Drugs: U.S. officials say operation has dismantled a group that supplied a key ingredient to labs operating in the state.

August 02, 2000|ESTHER SCHRADER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Federal agents have made a "major dent" in California's multibillion-dollar methamphetamine industry, dismantling a bicoastal criminal ring that supplied some of the nation's largest meth labs with a chemical used to produce the drug, they said Tuesday.

Since Saturday, federal and local law enforcement agents have arrested eight of 10 kingpins of the loosely knit organization, which calls itself "the commission," U.S. officials said. They also arrested 140 lower-ranking participants in eight U.S. cities and seized more than 10 tons of pseudoephedrine and $8 million in profits.

U.S. officials said the organization has been legally importing the chemical pseudoephedrine from China and India to New York, then diverting it to methamphetamine labs run by Mexican drug gangs throughout Southern California. Most of its members were born in the Middle East, and federal officials believe that tens of millions of dollars in proceeds have been routed to Syria, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

"The impact is huge" on the methamphetamine business in California, said Christy McCampbell, chief of the Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement at the California Department of Justice. "That's not to say that it's going to stop methamphetamine manufacture in the state, but it will certainly slow it down--for a while, anyway."

The Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement raids more than three methamphetamine labs a day in California on average. The agency estimates the state's annual output of the drug at more than 40 tons, worth about $400 million wholesale, or more than $1 billion on the street.

Pseudoephedrine is a key component of over-the-counter cold remedies, such as Sudafed, and can be imported legally by companies that register with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. But it also can be combined with other chemicals to produce methamphetamine, a powerful stimulant also known as crank, speed and crystal.

Meth is produced in such large quantities in California that the DEA has labeled the state a "source nation" of the drug.

DEA officials said the trafficking reveals serious flaws in the agency's system for registering companies to import pseudoephedrine. They said the traffickers created an intricate network of shell companies to move the chemical.

"These people lied to us when they registered with us. They gave us fraudulent records and what-not," said Terrence Woodworth, deputy director of the DEA's Office of Diversion Control. "It's very hard to tell when someone's lying to you, but we need to try hard to do better."

The operation marks the first time that federal agents have gone after pseudoephedrine traffickers. The use of pseudoephedrine in the meth trade has surged since 1994, when the DEA tightened controls on the importation and distribution of a similar chemical, ephedrine.

Traffickers import pseudoephedrine in tablet form, then melt it down for use in manufacturing meth, officials said.

While federal agents said the organization that they dismantled had competitors, they believe that it was the largest and most sophisticated of its kind in the United States.

"The operation should have a significant impact on methamphetamine trafficking in the U.S. by limiting the availability of pseudoephedrine and deterring other registrants who might be considering the illicit diversion of chemicals and pharmaceuticals," U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno said.

Also arrested in connection with the operation were 36 Mexican-born methamphetamine traffickers operating high-volume meth labs in Southern California, federal agents said. Agents also seized 83 pounds of meth from the labs.

The labs that were clients of the pseudoephedrine ring were producing meth in huge batches of 70 to 100 pounds at a time, federal officials said. Their production has dwarfed that of the thousands of "mom and pop" labs that typically produce one ounce or less of finished meth at a time.

One of the leaders of the pseudoephedrine ring, Rabah El Haddad, was arrested in San Jose on Saturday, officials said. He and the other leaders have been charged with manufacturing methamphetamine for sale.

In addition to the arrests, federal agents acted to revoke the import and distribution permits of 20 other pseudoephedrine distributors across the country.

Federal officials described the network as a coalition of importers who held permits to bring pseudoephedrine into the country. Syrian-born Hassan Zaghmot, for example, used his company, Denver Wholesale, and related firms to distribute the chemical, officials said.

The traffickers typically would import a case of 14,400 pseudoephedrine tablets at a cost of about $1,500, then sell it to Mexican lab operators for more than $4,000, federal officials said.

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