Seven people believed to be members of an international drug cartel have been arrested and indicted on conspiracy and drug trafficking charges after a massive undercover operation that led to the seizure of 25 tons of hashish destined for the United States, Canada and Australia, authorities announced Thursday.
Three members of the group are said to be high-ranking members of the sophisticated ring, which authorities believe has operated since the 1980s smuggling billions of dollars worth of drugs globally.
The arrests were made in late January, after a joint yearlong undercover investigation involving police agencies from the United States, Australia and Canada. The operation included a dramatic and risky ship-to-ship drug transfer on the high seas off Australia, U.S. authorities said.
“This indictment charges a massive conspiracy dedicated to the distribution of narcotics worldwide,” U.S. Atty. Nora M. Manella said at a news conference announcing the indictments.
Authorities said they are still looking for those who may have been financing the operations.
The group allegedly shipped 25 tons of hashish valued at more than $250 million from southwest Asia, where it was purchased, to the South Pacific, where eight tons of the drug was loaded onto an Australian-bound ship. On Dec. 12, Australian authorities seized that shipment and arrested 18 people.
On the same day, about 17 tons of the hashish was moved to a barge staffed by undercover agents with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. The drugs were transported to Los Angeles, where agents made three deliveries of more than four tons each to Montreal, upstate New York and the Los Angeles area. The 17.5-ton seizure is the largest quantity of hashish ever confiscated by U.S. officials during an undercover operation, said DEA Special Agent Robert E. Bender.
“The totality of it was very sophisticated,” Bender said of the smuggling ring. “They were very sharp, very comfortable with law enforcement techniques, how we pursue investigations. I just thank God that we had very capable agents who were able to stay one step ahead of them.”
Hashish is a thick, resinous concentrated form of cannabis that can be highly potent, Bender said. The market in the United States is negligible, but the drug is highly sought after in Europe and Canada because of its low cost.
Those indicted were: * David Kulik, 43, a U.S. citizen arrested in Mexico and deported to this country. He is accused of obtaining the hashish and arranging its shipment to North America.
* Gary Matsuzaki, 43, a U.S. citizen arrested in Indio, Calif., and accused of planning deliveries to Australia, Canada and the eastern United States.
* Vagn Bo Larsen, 44, believed to be a Dutch citizen, arrested in Montreal.
* Brian Alan Auchard, 38, of Nevada City, Calif.; he allegedly delivered cash in return for drug shipments.
* Charles Staunton, 38, a former New South Wales, Australia, police officer arrested in Montreal; he is charged with making payments to undercover officials to transport the hashish.
* Wanda Marie Halpert, 45, a Canadian citizen arrested in Vancouver, Canada, and accused of arranging the distribution of the hashish in that country.
* Douglas Martin Secor, 45, of Prescott, Ariz.; he is accused of being the Southern California distributor for the ring. He was arrested in Orange County after picking up a truck that contained four tons of hashish.
Larsen, Staunton and Halpert are being held by Canadian authorities while awaiting extradition to the United States.
The charges carry minimum 10-year prison terms. Manella said the defendants may face closer to 20 years if convicted, however, because of the amount of drugs involved.