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14 Arrested in International Opium-Smuggling Case

The operation's alleged leaders, three Valley men, face 10 years to life in prison if convicted of sneaking in drugs from Afghanistan and Iran.

August 29, 2003|Michael Krikorian | Times Staff Writer

Authorities have seized 88 pounds of opium from Afghanistan and Iran and arrested 14 men in what was called a major drug smuggling ring spanning three continents.

"This was a very well-structured organization with vast capabilities to import and distribute multiple kilograms of smokable raw opium, which could be easily converted into heroin," John Fernandes, acting special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Los Angeles, said on Thursday.

Asbed Abramian and Ardash Harytoonian, both of Glendale, and Malek Khodaverdy of Sun Valley, were described by DEA Special Agent Jose Martinez as the leaders of the operation. If convicted, they face from 10 years to life in prison.

Much of the opium originated in Afghanistan, but Martinez said the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force, consisting of the DEA, the FBI, the Glendale Police Department and the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, have found no links to Taliban forces, the Al Qaeda terrorism network or Afghan warlords.

"We are still following the money back," said Martinez, "But so far, we've only seen the money go back to Armenia and Iran."

The task force used confidential informants, wiretaps and electronic surveillance to build the case, Martinez said.

Much of the drug-related phone conversations, primarily in Persian and Armenian, was in code, according to an affidavit filed in the case. For example, the word "papers" was used when referring to money, and the terms "fabrics," "textiles" and "tapestries" were used for opium.

One of the alleged ringleaders, Khodaverdy, was said to be the manager of Custom Car Wash in Pacoima, from where he allegedly organized opium deals, according to the affidavit.

On May 27, Khodaverdy was observed leaving the car wash carrying a shopping bag, which he placed in the car of co-defendant Jahangir Lahiji. Shortly afterward, Lahiji was stopped by the California Highway Patrol for speeding, and nearly three pounds of opium -- valued at nearly $45,000 -- were found in a shopping bag in the trunk of his car.

Others arrested and charged in the drug smuggling were Mario Enrique Gonzalez, Iran Sadri, Rubik Estepanian, Edik Alexi, Arsalan Kuchikali, Jalal Dehbashibehbahani, Valod Davoodi, Katrin Konaraki, Adavaz Zarooki and Shahin Khodagolian.

The defendants range in age from 40 to 70, Martinez said. They face a minimum of 10 years in federal prison if convicted.

The ring operated out of Europe, Asia and North America, Martinez said.

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