Twelve people have been charged with smuggling cocaine and heroin from Panama into the U.S. and distributing it to street-level dealers in three states, according to an indictment that federal prosecutors announced on Monday.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Kravetz said the smuggling network involved female couriers who tried to cross the border between Mexico and Texas with packets of uncut cocaine and heroin sewn into Lycra shorts, using a cucumber-aloe mixture to try to thwart drug-sniffing dogs. After several couriers were arrested using that method, the smugglers resorted to sewing packets of drugs into hair weaves and wigs.
After receiving the drugs in Panama, the couriers traveled by bus or plane to Mexico, then attempted to cross on foot into the U.S. at Texas border towns including Laredo, McAllen and Brownsville.
Authorities said the ring distributed the drugs to dealers in downtown Wilmington; Elkton, Md.; and Avondale and Kennett Square, Pa.
All defendants named in the 20-count indictment, including a former Wilmington resident wanted on an outstanding murder warrant, are charged with possession with intent to distribute five or more kilograms of cocaine and one or more kilograms of heroin, and conspiracy to smuggle similar amounts of those drugs. Each of those charges carries a mandatory prison term of 10 years upon conviction, and a maximum sentence of life.
Ten of the defendants are either in custody or under supervised release, including three suspected couriers in Panama. The U.S. is looking to have them extradited.
But the two alleged Panama-based ringleaders, Efrain Dixon and Benjamin Carpenter, are still at large, authorities said. Kravetz said Dixon, 31, fled to Panama City after a warrant was issued for his arrest in connection with a 2006 murder in Wilmington. Dixon and Carpenter are believed to be based in Colon, Panama, according to authorities.
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"We've had extensive cooperation with authorities in Panama," Kravetz said.
Kravetz said Ronaldo Edmund, 36, of Wilmington is related to Dixon and Carpenter was a key player in the alleged ring. According to authorities, Edmund, along with Kelvin Cook, 33, of Newark, and Julio Archer, 39, of Philadelphia, recruited the couriers to travel to Panama to get the drugs from Carpenter and Dixon.
Kravetz said Edmund, who was arrested in June, would meet the couriers in San Antonio, then drive or take a Greyhound bus back to Wilmington. Edmund, Archer and Cook remain in custody. Lawyers for Edmund and Cook did not immediately return telephone messages Monday. An attorney for Archer declined to comment but said his client maintains his innocence.
Authorities said 10 couriers have been arrested in the U.S. and nine in Panama. Four have pleaded guilty to smuggling charges and been sentenced in federal court in Texas, and another, Tissany Buckham, is awaiting sentencing in federal court in Delaware after pleading guilty in August. Buckham's attorney declined comment Monday.
Kravetz estimated that the drug network allegedly smuggled or attempted to smuggle at least 15 kilograms of cocaine and five kilograms of heroin over a three-year period starting in 2008.