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April 1, 2004 - The San Francisco Chronicle (CA)

4 Linked With International Ecstasy Ring

150 Arrested in U.S., Canada After 2-Year Probe

By Henry K. Lee, Chronicle Staff Writer

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Three East Bay residents and a San Jose man were among more than 150 people arrested Wednesday for their roles in an international ring that authorities said was responsible for smuggling 15 percent of the party drug ecstasy into the United States.

Thanh Tran, 47, of Newark; Dong Dang Huynh, 39, of Alameda; Huynh's sister, Thi Thao Thi Huynh, 33, of Newark; and Huy Tran, 24, of San Jose face charges of money laundering as a result of a two-year investigation that federal officials dubbed "Operation Candy Box."

Relatives of the four declined to comment Wednesday about the early morning arrests conducted by FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration agents and other agencies. The defendants are expected to appear in federal court today.

The alleged ringleaders, Ze Wai Wong, 46, a Chinese citizen, and Thi Phuong Mai Le, 38, a Vietnamese citizen, oversaw a wide-ranging network of cells in 18 U.S. cities and Canada that distributed up to a million ecstasy tablets a month and laundered as much as $5 million per month, authorities said.

Wong, who was arrested in Toronto, oversaw ecstasy distribution, and Le, taken into custody in Ottawa, orchestrated the money laundering of the drug proceeds, authorities said. Both could face life in prison without parole if they are convicted on charges of operating a continuing criminal enterprise.

In a wiretapped phone conversation in August, Le was heard telling an associate to fly to Seattle to pick up proceeds from ecstasy sales and deliver the money to someone in Oakland, where the money would be transferred to bank accounts worldwide, including in Vietnam, according to an indictment unsealed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

Investigators have shut down three ecstasy labs in Canada and seized 12 guns, $5.9 million and 500,000 tablets of ecstasy, which is considered the drug of choice by many of those who attend "raves," all-night parties featuring loud techno-beat music.

Users of ecstasy, a mind-altering stimulant chemically known as methylenedioxymethamphetamine or MDMA -- "E" on the streets -- report a heightened sense of well-being. But they can suffer from depression and memory loss, according to [government] health officials.

"Out of all the dangers of illegal drugs, ecstasy is of special concern because it is aimed at our teens and youth masquerading as colorful candy," said Karen Tandy, DEA administrator.

The raids effectively dismantled the ring, said Deputy Attorney General James Comey. "Through the work of many different agencies, we have achieved a top-to-bottom decimation of a dangerous drug organization and a complementary attack on the fuel that drives the organization -- their money," Comey said.

Wong's clandestine ecstasy-making laboratories in Toronto provided tablets to distribution cells in Atlanta; Los Angeles; New York; Des Moines, Iowa; Houston; New Orleans; Orlando and Tennessee, authorities said. Distribution cells "then sold the ecstasy to users on the streets and in nightclubs," according to an indictment unsealed in U.S. District Court in New York.

From there, the group arranged for millions of dollars of drug proceeds to be collected and laundered back to leaders in Canada, authorities said.

Group members often communicated in code with prepaid cell phones, court papers said. Couriers used vehicles with hidden compartments to smuggle ecstasy and money, authorities said. In one case, police searched a vehicle bound for Canada via the border city of Burlington, VT, and found $750,000 in the gas tank, investigators said.

The group was known to resort to violence, with one person getting killed with a meat cleaver in January in New York because of a drug debt, the indictment said.

The group also trafficked in Canadian-grown marijuana, known as "BC Bud," investigators said. Authorities also seized 1,170 pounds of marijuana and 6.5 pounds of methamphetamine during the investigation.

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