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Feds Score Big

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Federal drug agents smashed a drug-smuggling and distribution ring run by Middle Easterners Thursday, charging nearly 100 people with selling common cold tablets smuggled from Canada for conversion to methamphetamine.

Ninety-six arrests warrants were issued in Chicago, Detroit 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 U.S., 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.

"There's a tremendous volume of pseudeophedrine coming in from Canada and a number of Middle Eastern operators," said Keefe. Agents traced drugs found in raids in California back to Canada during a year-long 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 160 arrests, authorities said. Agents have seized $16 million in cash, 83 pounds of methamphetamine and 10 metric tons of pseudoephedrine capable of producing 18,000 pounds of methamphetamine with a wholesale value of $100 million.

Agents have shut down pseudoephedrine operations at 18 companies.

The 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.

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