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December 6, 2019Seattle, United StatesNarcotics

ICE HSI, law enforcement partners, battle opioid crisis in Pacific Northwest

SEATTLE, Wash. – The opioid epidemic is devastating communities across the United States. Drugs such as fentanyl and others laced with unknown and dangerous substances are destroying lives at an alarming rate. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) agents throughout the Pacific Northwest work daily with law enforcement partners locally, nationally and internationally to stop the flow of illicit opioids. HSI attacks the opioid crisis by deploying specialized skills and resources to disrupt and dismantle transnational criminal organizations responsible for smuggling and distributing dangerous narcotics throughout the Pacific Northwest.

"Illicit drugs are a serious problem in our community, said Eben Roberts, acting special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Seattle. "HSI, along with our law enforcement partners, are very passionate about removing these dangerous substances from the streets, dismantling the criminal organizations involved in their distribution, and protecting potential users from harm."

HSI's counter narcotics work is highly collaborative, using a vast array of operational frameworks to confront the opioid crisis, including:

  • Border Enforcement Security Task Forces (BESTs): HSI leads the 57 BESTs throughout the country – which incorporate personnel from federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies – to hunt down and disrupt fentanyl smuggling operations and other transnational organized crime.
  • High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) task forces: These task forces bring law enforcement agency partners together to combat drug trafficking crimes in designated areas around the country that have a high concentration of narcotic distribution, transportation, smuggling and other drug-related activities.
  • Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces (OCDETFs): HSI-led and -supported OCDETF investigations leverage the authorities and expertise of member agencies to maximize enforcement attention on significant and complex transnational criminal organizations.

HSI, in cooperation with local, state and federal law enforcement partners, are dedicated to tackling the opioid crisis and reducing the flow of drugs both locally and abroad. The following cases are a testament to that commitment and partnership:

  • On Sept. 5, 2019, HSI BEST agents arrested thirteen people on two federal grand jury indictments alleging a conspiracy to export hundreds of pounds of narcotics, including cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine, from Mexico through Southern California and into Canada. Three defendants were arrested in the Los Angeles area, while the others were arrested in the Seattle and Vancouver, Canada areas. The indictments charged a total of 30 defendants with a series of narcotics-related offenses, including conspiracies to distribute, import, and export controlled substances. The indictments further allege that the organization imported Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), known as ecstasy, from Canada to Southern California in exchange for other drugs.
  • On July 12, 2019, Daniel Vivas Ceron, 38, a Colombian fentanyl trafficker pleaded guilty to being the leader and organizer of a continuing criminal enterprise while incarcerated in Quebec, Canada. He moved fentanyl and other similar substances from Canada and China into the United States and those drugs resulted in at least 16 deaths. This case is part of "Operation Denial," an HSI-led OCDETF investigation into the international trafficking of fentanyl and other lethal drugs that resulted in the indictments of 32 individuals, including 5 Chinses nationals. The investigation started in North Dakota on Jan. 3, 2015, after the fatal overdose of 18-year-old Bailey Henke.
  • On July 11 2019, Joseph Richard Caruso, 34, a prolific darknet narcotics vendor residing in Lake Oswego, Oregon, was sentenced to 87 months in federal prison for illegally distributing fentanyl linked to a 2017 fatal overdose in Wisconsin. According to court documents, on Nov.19, 2017, a U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPS) inspector discovered a suspicious package addressed to Caruso at the USPS Portland Air Cargo Center. Wearing a ventilated hood for protection, a HSI agent assigned to the HIDTA Interdiction Taskforce opened the heat-sealed package and found a clear baggie containing a fine powdery substance that later tested positive for cyclopropyl fentanyl. Through further investigation, HSI agents and other task force officers secured probable cause and arrested Caruso. Close coordination by HSI's Guangzhou office with the Chinese National Crime Bureau on a separate investigation led to the identification of Caruso's source of supply in China, resulting in the arrest of nine Chinese nationals. On Nov. 7, 2019, one of the defendants was sentenced to death and the remaining eight received life sentences.
  • In May 2019, Maria Angelica Maldonado, 55, and her husband, Ismael Garcia Sr., 49, as well as Anthony Bustos, 20, were convicted for their involvement in a large-scale heroin trafficking and money laundering investigation led by the HSI HIDTA Task Force. HSI agents and task force officers arrested Maldonado and Garcia on money laundering charges for using their business, Celulares y Multiservicios, to ship drug money to Mexico for a fee. HSI also arrested Bustos on money laundering charges as well as possession of heroin with intent to distribute.
  • On Nov. 9, 2018, Gregory L. Smith, 34, was sentenced in U.S. District Court in Seattle to 12 years in prison for distributing narcotics, including deadly fentanyl analogues imported from China. HSI BEST agents and task force officers arrested Smith in August 2017, following an investigation that traced more than 70 shipments of fentanyl analogues from China to Smith. When law enforcement searched the home Smith shared with his wife and young daughter, they found fentanyl, heroin, cocaine, thousands of pills of oxycodone and 16 firearms strewn throughout the house, as well as cash and cryptocurrency worth over $850,000. The fentanyl Smith distributed in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood is tied to a April 2017 overdose death.

As the largest investigative agency within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), HSI investigates and enforces more than 400 federal criminal statutes – more than any other U.S. law enforcement agency. HSI special agents use this authority to investigate cross-border criminal activity – including drug trafficking – and work in close coordination with local state and federal law enforcement agencies to target transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) that are bringing dangerous substances, such as illicit fentanyl, into the community.

In fiscal year (FY) 2019, HSI seized over 1 million lbs. of illegal narcotics, including 3,688 lbs. of fentanyl, 8,179 lbs. of heroin, 145,117 lbs. of methamphetamine and 12,466 lbs. of opioids. HSI also increased their number of narcotics-related criminal arrests to 12,700 compared to 11, 444 arrests in FY 2018.

"HSI is a unique agency specifically positioned to investigate all manner of transnational crime," stated Roberts. "HSI has agents stationed nationally and internationally who, alongside our law enforcement partners, are able to combat drug suppliers at the source. These organizations and supply chains are very complex and rely on strong partnerships to disrupt and dismantle them. HSI is committed to those partnerships and our joint missions. We will continue to seek and hold accountable those who endanger our community through both the illicit substances themselves and the associated crimes."

If you would like to report suspicious criminal activity: Call 866-347-2423 (from U.S. and Canada).