Friday, December 21, 2001

Isle drug raid
busts Mexican ring

The operation netted as much
as $2 million in annual profits,
sent back to Mexico

By Rod Thompson and Nelson Daranciang

HILO >> Federal, state and county law officers said they have shut down a drug smuggling operation that brought more than 20 pounds of heroin to Hawaii in a year and sent as much as $2 million in drug profits to Mexico.

Federal, state and county law enforcement officers arrested 20 people yesterday charged in three secret federal indictments on a variety of drug trafficking and related money laundering offenses. A 21st defendant arrested was charged by criminal complaint.

"The organization is totally dismantled," U.S. Attorney Ed Kubo said this morning.

The organization brought "black tar" heroin from Mexico through Los Angeles attached to the bodies of couriers for distribution on Oahu and the Big Island, Kubo said.

The biggest amount confiscated here before yesterday was 20 pounds with a street value of about $1.6 million, U.S. Customs Special Agent Michael Cox said. He estimated officials seized only half of what was brought into the country.

The shipments would be broken down to 1-gram units and sold for $180 each, enough for about one day's use. Addicts would have to steal and sell that much property a day to support their habit, Hawaii County Vice Section Lt. Henry Tavares said.

Looking at Western Union money transfers, cash carried by couriers intercepted by officers, and other money movement, $1 million a year was identified leaving Hawaii, Cox said. Officers were able seize $166,000 of that.

The Internal Revenue Service participated in the investigation, and tax evasion charges are possible, he said.

Mayor Harry Kim, who has made combating drugs an important element of his administration, said he wanted to see more enforcement like this one, dubbed Operation Island Pipeline.

"My message is this: Don't mess with this island. We'd like to kick their ass," Kim said in a written statement.

Fifteen people were arrested yesterday on the Big Island, all U.S. citizens, the mayor's office said. The others are Mexican nationals, Kubo said.

Most, facing federal charges, were to face initial appearances in U.S. District Court this afternoon. Others face state charges.

Yesterday's arrests were in addition to 18 previous arrests during the past year, mostly in California, Cox said.

Preliminary information came as early as 1995, Tavares said. The investigation began in earnest in November 2000 and picked up speed after March 8 when a person who was arrested cooperated with officials, Cox said.

Kubo said 11 federal, state and county agencies, including Hawaii National Guard, were involved. Cox said Mexican law enforcement agencies were not asked to participate. However Mexican authorities did make some arrests in Mexico said Larry Burnett, US Customs Service Resident Agent in Charge. During yesterday's raids, 95 officers participated.

The drug organization apparently had no formal name for itself, but law enforcement officials have called it the Mexican Drug Traffic Organization. All of the Mexican members were related by blood or marriage, Cox said.

They dealt in a form of heroin that is a brown powder in Mexico but turns to a sticky black mass in contact with Hawaii humidity, leading to the term "Mexican black tar heroin."

The heroin is believed to have been brought across the border at Tijuana. Hawaii residents selected for the job then carried it in pouches and packages on their bodies from Los Angeles to the Big Island via Honolulu.

Disappearance of heroin from the streets will probably send many addicts to methadone treatment programs, Tavares said. "We definitely need more treatment programs."

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