WASHINGTON - A U.S.-Canadian drug trafficking ring believed responsible for 15 percent of all the Ecstasy smuggled into America has been wiped out, authorities said Wednesday. They announced arrests and criminal charges against 170 people.
At its height, the ring distributed 1 million Ecstasy tablets per month in the two countries and laundered $5 million a month using travel agencies and bank transfers in the United States and Vietnam, officials said.
Drug Enforcement Administration chief Karen Tandy said the two-year investigation culminated in the arrests of nearly the entire trafficking operation, from leaders to couriers.
"We wiped out this entire organization," Tandy said at a news conference.
Ecstasy, or MDMA, is a synthetic controlled substance known originally as a "club drug" because of its popularity at gatherings called "raves" and dance clubs. It has spread to high schools and colleges, with an estimated 3.2 million people using the drug in 2002, according to the DEA.
It was once thought of as a harmless drug. But research has found that prolonged, heavy use of Ecstasy can cause confusion, depression, anxiety, aggressive and impulsive behavior, and memory loss, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Its popularity has caught the attention of an increasing range of criminal enterprises, largely because of the big profits. Pills sold at about $4 apiece wholesale in the operation typically cost $15 to $20 each on the street.
The organization targeted by U.S. and Canadian authorities consisted largely of people with Asian backgrounds, according to court documents. The alleged ringleaders were Ze Wai Wong, 46, a Chinese citizen, and Mai Phuong Le, 38, a Vietnamese citizen. Wong was arrested in Toronto and Le in Ottawa.
They operated three labs in Canada, which were discovered and dismantled in August, authorities said. The pills often were smuggled across the U.S. border or inside Canada in compartments within vehicle gas tanks, making the drugs hard to detect, particularly for drug-sniffing dogs.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday unanimously ruled that government agents have broad authority to search and even dismantle vehicle gas tanks to combat smuggling at U.S. borders.
The ring also used hidden gas tank compartments to transport cash. In one instance, the search of a vehicle headed for Canada in Burlington, Vt., yielded $750,000 in U.S. currency concealed in the compartment.
Authorities said the Wong-Le organization differs from previous Ecstasy trafficking groups because it is the first known to have manufactured the pills on a large scale in North America. The main sources of Ecstasy previously have been the Netherlands and Belgium.
These methods, said Deputy Attorney General James Comey, are "a signal to us that, as we feared, the profits available in Ecstasy are attracting new traffickers and new ways of trafficking."
U.S. and Canadian charging documents accuse Wong of leading a drug distribution ring in 18 U.S. cities and Canada and contend that Le orchestrated the laundering of drug money for the operation. They and the others are charged with a lengthy list of counts including conspiracy to distribute Ecstasy and operating a continuing criminal enterprise.
The organization also trafficked in Canadian-grown marijuana, known as "BC Bud," and was involved in identity theft and other criminal enterprises, officials said. Raf Souccar, drug chief for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, said eight marijuana-growing operations were shut down Wednesday in the Ottawa area.
Of those charged in arrest warrants, about 145 had been arrested as of Wednesday afternoon. Arrest and search warrants were executed in 16 American cities, with Canadian authorities serving 50 arrest warrants in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal.
Arrests were made in these U.S. cities: Houston; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Oakland, Calif.; San Jose, Calif.; Jacksonville, Fla.; New Orleans; Baton Rouge, La.; Mobile, Ala.; New York; Boston; Atlanta; Alexandria, Va.; Des Moines, Iowa; Minneapolis and Salt Lake City.
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