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DEA says international methamphetamine ring smashed

August 1, 2000
Web posted at: 9:17 p.m. EDT (0117 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. law enforcement officials say they have, for the first time, disrupted a sophisticated distribution network of manufacturers and wholesalers capable of moving tons of legal drugs used to manufacture the illegal drug methamphetamine.

On Tuesday, Joe Keefe, chief of the Drug Enforcement Agency's special operations division, said, "This was the first time that U.S. law enforcement has been able to connect a major group of pseudoephedrine distributors directly to U.S.-based, Mexican-controlled methamphetamine laboratory operators."

Pseudoephedrine is a chemical used to make over-the-counter decongestant. It also is a key component of methamphetamine.

The revelations came at a Tuesday afternoon news conference announcing the results of Operation Mountain Express, which entered its final phase last Friday.

$8 million in cash seized

The operation seized 10 tons of pseudoephredine and $8 million in cash. To date, there have been about 135 arrests, 45 of which took place since last weekend. Authorities have executed 66 search warrants in 45 cities.

During the course of the six-month probe, officials said, the DEA uncovered a 10-member group known as "The Commission" which developed companies that transported precursor drugs directly to Mexican drug traffickers with large-scale methamphetamine labs in California. Precursor drugs are biochemical substances used to make a more definitive product.

One surveillance video showed workers allegedly loading hundreds of pounds of pseudoephredrine.

The Commission was composed primarily of naturalized U.S. citizens of Middle Eastern descent, with the proceeds of their alleged illegal activity going to Syria, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the DEA officials told CNN.

8 ringleaders arrested, DEA says

Agents say they arrested eight of the 10 members of The Commission, including Hassan Zaghmot of Denver, whom the DEA said was the primary leader of the group.

"These criminals that we arrested tried to hide behind shell companies, business fronts and false paperwork," said DEA Administrator Donnie Marshall.

Agents found $650,000 in cash in Zaghmot's safe deposit box, which he intended to use to finance a quick escape, according to DEA officials, who requested anonymity. They said another member of The Commission was out of the country, and the other may have fled after the latest round of arrests began last Friday.

The DEA said the group was supplying drugs that could fuel a methamphetamine network capable of generating hundreds of millions of dollars. One pound of methamphetamine can be sold for as much as $16,000.

Pseudoephedrine is shipped to the United States from Germany, China, India and the Czech Republic.

The DEA said The Commission created as many as 18 companies to transport the drugs, not to legitimate companies, but to scores of Mexican drug traffickers who had methamphetamine labs on the West Coast.

The DEA said that among those charged with drug offenses, it found company officials who had registered to distribute pseudoephedrine legally.

From the West Coast, the DEA said, the finished methamphetamine would be shipped throughout the country, particularly to the Midwest, where methamphetamine has emerged as a drug of choice.

"Methamphetamine poses a very serious threat to our communities," said U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno during Tuesday's news conference. "It is threatening to follow in the footsteps of crack and take over communities."

CNN Justice Correspondent Pierre Thomas and The Associated Press contributed to this report.