GREAT FALLS, Mont. - U.S. and Canadian authorities said a smuggling ring used remote parts of the border to move more than 1,000 kilograms of cocaine into Canada and 1.3 million tablets of ecstasy into the United States over more than two years.
U.S. Attorney for Montana Michael Cotter said the international investigation seized 414 kilograms of cocaine and 29 kilograms of ecstasy, and 17 people were arrested in the U.S. and Canada, making it one of the largest drug busts on either side of the border.
"This is certainly the largest seizure both here in Montana and Saskatchewan," Cotter said in a news conference in Great Falls on Monday.
Authorities revealed details of the operation and the investigation for the first time as U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon sentenced one of the ring's Canadian drivers to five years in prison Monday.
Cotter and officials from the RCMP, the Department of Homeland Security , the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Border Patrol described how from 2009 until last fall, the ring would use rental vehicles to transport cocaine from southern California to small border outposts in Montana.
The cocaine would then be delivered across the border and driven to British Columbia for distribution.
The suspects also hid ecstasy and marijuana from British Columbia in vehicles that would head south into the United States for distribution.
The estimated street value of the drugs seized is US$17.5 million, Cotter said.
Authorities first became aware of the ring after an arrest was made at a border post last year, said Aaron Heitke, deputy chief of the Border Patrol in Montana.
Cotter and Mercer Armstrong, the officer in charge of the RCMP F Division in Saskatchewan, said the investigation shows the need for interagency co-operation to control illicit drug smuggling through the 941-kilometre-long border.
"I certainly wouldn't want to say that it's the beginning of an epidemic, but certainly the nature of our border makes for the possibility for criminal organizations to look at that border area to be able to carry out the goals that they have," Armstrong said.
The alleged ringleader, Brock Palfrey of Silverstar, B.C., is awaiting trial in Canada on charges of importing cocaine into Canada, possession with intent to distribute and criminal organization, Armstrong said.
Two other alleged co-conspirators are awaiting trial in Canada and a third has negotiated a plea deal.
Two Canadian men have been sentenced in Montana after negotiating plea deals.
On Monday, Haddon sentenced Christopher Chambers to five years in prison after Chambers pleaded guilty to conspiracy to export cocaine.
Chambers drove a scout car that accompanied the rental cars carrying drugs from California to the border.
Haddon gave Chambers a lower sentence than federal guidelines recommend after Chambers pleaded guilty to conspiracy to export cocaine. The judge said he factored in that Chambers had not been in trouble before and also the support shown by the 30 friends and family members from Canada who were in the courtroom.
A contrite Chambers pledged to be a "better son, a better husband and a better man."
"My actions in this conspiracy were inexcusable and very immature," he told the judge.
Haddon previously sentenced another Canadian, Gregory German, to 7 1/2 years in prison for his role in the drug smuggling ring.
Authorities said more arrests could follow.
Earlier this year, Colombia police <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/01/19/drug-smuggling-pigeon_n_811044.html" target="_hplink">captured</a> a carrier pigeon trying to fly into a Bucarmanga jail with marijuana and cocaine paste strapped to its back. Carrying a package with 40 grams of marijuana and 5 grams of a paste containing cocaine, the bird -- which police believe had been trained by inmates or accomplices -- appeared to be unable to successfully clear the prison walls.
In 2009, Spanish police<a href="http://articles.cnn.com/2009-03-06/justice/spain.leg.cast_1_cocaine-police-leg?_s=PM:CRIME" target="_hplink"> arrested</a> a man arriving at Barcelona's airport from Chile after determining that the cast on his fractured left leg was made of cocaine, CNN reported. The 66-year-old man had an actual fracture of two bones below the knee, but the police suspect that he, or accomplices, may have intentionally fractured it, so that the cocaine cast could be applied.
Perhaps they should call it a case of "Merry-Juana." A German man <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/12/08/marijuana-christmas-tree-_n_793946.html" target="_hplink">faced</a> drug possession charges after local police discovered a six-foot-tall marijuana plant in his home that had been decorated with twinkling Christmas lights in late 2010.
In 2006, CNN <a href="http://articles.cnn.com/2006-02-01/world/drug.pups_1_heroin-seizures-puppies-dea-spokesman-rusty-payne?_s=PM:WORLD" target="_hplink">reported</a> that a two-year investigation into a Colombian heroin ring netted more than 65 pounds of drugs, resulted in the arrests of more than 20 people and saved the lives of some drug-smuggling Labrador retrievers. Ten wayward pups were found during a raid on a Colombian farm in 2005, and six of them were carrying more than 3 kilograms (6.6 pounds) of liquid heroin in their stomachs.
In 2009, the Mexican navy <a href="http://articles.cnn.com/2009-06-17/world/mexico.drug.sharks_1_mexican-navy-cocaine-frozen?_s=PM:WORLD" target="_hplink">smelled</a> something fishy the southeastern port of Progreso, and their intuition paid off. When the inspectors zeroed in on a shipment of sharks, they found black bags containing rectangular packets filled with cocaine inside the frozen fish.
In 2006, a 25-year-old Australian woman was <a href="http://uneasysilence.com/archive/2006/06/6833/" target="_hplink">charged</a> with attempting to smuggle heroin into the country a week after she was found to be carrying 329 drug-filled condoms in her stomach. The woman was intercepted on suspicion she was carrying drugs internally by customs officers at Sydney airport as she came off a flight from Singapore.
In 2008, former England cricket player Chris Lewis was <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/dec/09/chris-lewis-cocaine-drugs" target="_hplink">charged</a> with attempting to smuggle cocaine with a street value of more than 200,000 pounds into Britain. The 40-year-old was arrested along with an alleged accomplice on Dec. 8, 2008 after border control officers at London's Gatwick airport found four kilograms (nine pounds) of the illegal drug in liquid form in fruit tins in a baggage that had arrived from the Caribbean island of St Lucia.
In 2006, Texas police <a href="http://www.clickorlando.com/news/9514444/detail.html" target="_hplink">reportedly</a> found about 168 grams of cocaine inside a can of Pringles. The cocaine was ingeniously made to look like the actual Pringles crisps.
In 1993, drug enforcement agents at Miami's airport<a href="http://www.elistmania.com/juice/10_creative_drug_smuggling_schemes/" target="_hplink"> reportedly</a> seized nearly 36 kilograms of cocaine wrapped in condoms and stuffed in Boa constrictors. The snakes had been imported from South America, and were still alive when they were found. There were over 312 snakes about 1.5 meters in length. The cocaine was actually found by mistake when one of the snakes appeared to have an abnormal bulge.