U.S. officials, expanding on an Oregon chemical-smuggling case, have placed major sanctions on the finances of Mexico's Ibarra Cardona drug trafficking organization and linked it to the infamous Sinaloa Cartel.
The action announced Monday by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is intended to disrupt the Ibarra Cardona group and freeze assets of any U.S. citizen connected to the organization.
Luis Gerardo Ibarra Cardona, who turns 30 on Wednesday, was designated under the U.S. government's Kingpin Act as leader of a group that smuggled tons of ephedrine -- the key ingredient in the manufacture of methamphetamine -- into Mexico through the United States.
Mexican authorities specializing in organized crime arrested Cardona in July 2009 on ephedrine-procuring charges.
The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control now has stepped in to disrupt the Tijuana-based Cardona family and its suspected efforts to keep ephedrine flowing to the Sinaloa Cartel's meth producers.
A Forest Grove businessman imported much of the chemical, marked as "green tea extract," from India. The ephedrine then traveled to a U.S. Customs broker in San Diego, who sold it to the Ibarra Cardona group, which carried it into Mexico, said federal prosecutor John F. Deits, who heads the drug unit in the U.S. Attorney's Office for Oregon.
"They were in turn supplying the Sinaloa Cartel with that ephedrine so the cartel could make methamphetamine," Deits said. "This is the first I've ever known of an Oregon investigation resulting in that kind of sanction for any group."
Cardona's mother, father, uncle, brother and three businesses also were designated under the Kingpin Act, which -- among other things -- freezes any assets they may have under U.S. jurisdiction.
The link to the Ibarra Cardona group and the Sinaloa Cartel, one of Mexico's leading drug trafficking organizations, began with a case prosecuted in Oregon.
Operation Liquid Dragon took form in 2008, when IRS agents began looking into suspicious wire transfers of nearly $13 million that moved through four bank accounts in Mexico between 2007 and 2009. Most of the money was traced to Antonio Gonzalez, a U.S. customs broker with homes in San Diego and just across the border in Tijuana.
The investigation would eventually uncover $5 million in wire transfers -- along with $2.6 million in cash -- that landed in a Wells Fargo Bank account for Spring Dragon Sourcing, a nutritional company owned by Forest Grove entrepreneur Verlyn Craig Payton. Records showed that Payton transferred $7.2 million to five businesses in India, primarily an outfit called Nutramed Biotech.
Customs officials began seizing shipments of liquid ephedrine brokered by Payton and shipped from India to the United States.
One shipment intercepted at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport in mid-2009 was capable of producing $2.7 million in methamphetamine, according to estimates by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Eventually, an undercover ICE agent posing as a businessman infiltrated the ephedrine smugglers. He invited them to a meeting in his $500-a-night suite at The Palazzo hotel in Las Vegas, with its sunken living room, stunning view of the Strip and -- as it happens -- hidden microphones.
The government's investment in the pricey room paid off. Prosecutors made their busts in late 2009, seizing $5.5 million in assets -- including palladium ingots, a Cessna 414A airplane and luxury autos that included a 2008 Tesla Roadster.
Six men -- Payton, Gonzalez, and four businessmen from India -- eventually were sentenced to federal prison terms ranging from just under three years to eight years.
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