WASHINGTON -- U.S. and Canadian officials said Tuesday they had disrupted a major methamphetamine supply system through an investigation that netted 67 arrests and tons of illegal chemicals.
Many of the alleged brokers, money launderers and go-betweens were of Middle Eastern origin, including a New York man whose uncle was recently arrested in Israel's West Bank on charges of being a member of the Islamic Jihad terrorist group. Much of the money was funneled to Amman, Jordan, and the West Bank cities of Nablus and Ramallah.
The 18-month investigation, dubbed "Operation North Star," centered on the shipment of pseudoephedrine -- a common nasal decongestant that in large amounts is a key ingredient in methamphetamine -- from three Canadian companies to large illicit labs in the Southwestern United States.
The charges were brought in indictments unsealed Tuesday in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, as well as cases brought in Canada. Among those charged are six current or former executives with three Canadian companies -- Frega Inc., Formulex and GC Medical Products -- who allegedly diverted thousands of pounds of pseudoephedrine to the United States for illegal use.
"Without a steady supply of pseudoephedrine, it's a lot harder to make methamphetamine," said Roger Guevara, DEA chief of operations.
Most of the shipments were made by truck over the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit, often hidden within legitimate loads of bottled water, bubble gum and other goods. The main brokers were in Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit and Los Angeles, officials said.
Charges were also brought against operators of illicit labs, many in areas around Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles, as well as transporters and distributors of pseudoephedrine. Search warrants executed Tuesday resulted in the seizure of more than 34,000 pounds of pseudoephedrine, $3.6 million in cash and six homes, officials said.
The investigation grew out of an earlier probe called "Mountain Express" that mainly targeted the domestic illegal use of pseudoephedrine. In January 2002, more than 100 people were arrested in an earlier investigation of Canadian suppliers.
Authorities were hesitant to make any connection to terrorism, despite the use by the alleged money launderers of the "hawallah" transfer schemes frequently favored by financiers of terror networks such as al-Qaida. These transfer schemes are run outside normal bank and financial channels, escaping government oversight.
The indictment filed in New York federal court cites an intercepted conversation between Odeh and another person in which Odeh says that his "Uncle Tayel" was arrested as part of the Islamic Jihad group. Elsewhere in the documents, that person is identified as Tail Uda, one of those helping launder the methamphetamine money in the West Bank.