Agents Announce Scores Of Arrests In Drug Distribution Ring

By KAREN GULLO, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - Federal drug agents said they smashed a drug-smuggling and distribution ring run by Middle Easterners on Thursday, charging more than 100 people with selling common cold tablets smuggled from Canada for conversion to methamphetamine.

Sixty-seven people have been arrested and another 54 arrest warrants were issued in Cleveland and 10 other cities, Drug Enforcement Administration officials said. They said the alleged smugglers, the majority of whom are from the Middle East, purchased barrels of pseudoephedrine pills in Canada and transported them to the United States, mainly through Detroit.

From there the pills were sold to methamphetamine laboratories in California and Mexico, said Joseph Keefe, head of DEA's special operations division.

Pseudeophedrine is a prescription antihistamine used in over-the-counter cold and flu medicines that is also the main ingredient in methamphetamine, a high-potency illegal street drug known as "speed" or "crank."

Pseudeophedrine is legal to purchase in Canada, but is a controlled substance in the United States.

DEA Administrator Asa Hutchinson said the smugglers have been forced to go to Canada for pseudeophedrine supplies because drug agents have cut off their U.S. supplies over the last two years.

That "demonstrates the success of U.S. efforts to control the illegal diversion of pseudoephedrine within our borders," Hutchinson said.

Federal agents have executed 49 search warrants, confiscated 96 cars, frozen bank accounts and seized up to $350,000 in connection with the investigation.

"There's a tremendous volume of pseudeophedrine coming in from Canada and a number of Middle Eastern operators," Keefe said.

Agents traced drugs found in raids in California back to Canada during a yearlong investigation called "Operation Mountain Express."

Some of the money from the smuggling operation has been traced back to Jordan and other Middle Eastern countries. Authorities are investigating whether the traffickers have any ties to terrorism.

So far, agents have not turned up any terrorist connections. Thursday's raids were the latest in a two-year operation to dismantle a nationwide ring supplying pseudoephedrine to clandestine labs that turned it into methamphetamine.

Operation Mountain Express so far has led to more than 300 arrests, authorities said. Agents have seized $16 million in cash, 181 pounds of methamphetamine and 30 metric tons of pseudoephedrine.

Agents have shut down pseudoephedrine operations at 18 companies.

The alleged distribution ring was headed by a group of 10 people, who called themselves "the Commission," and shipped their profits to the Middle East, authorities said.

Pseudeophedrine pills can be purchased in Canada for around $200 a case and sold to illegal methamphetamine manufacturers in the United States for around $2,200, they said.

Besides Cleveland, arrests were made in Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Riverside, Fresno, San Diego, and Carlsbad, Calif.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)