WASHINGTON – The Drug Enforcement Administration on Wednesday broadened its national crackdown on synthetic drug manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers as federal agents served hundreds of search and arrest warrants in at least 25 states, including New Mexico.
Agents served warrants at homes, warehouses and smoke shops beginning early Wednesday morning, DEA spokesman Rusty Payne said. The largest single operation was a statewide effort in Alabama. Agents also were active in 28 other states.
The agency in New Mexico served dozens of search warrants, arrested multiple people on state and federal charges and confiscated thousands of packets of synthetic drugs and other assets, said Eduardo Chavez, group leader for the DEA in Albuquerque.
Nationwide, the DEA said agents made more than 150 arrests and served about 200 warrants. Federal, state and local authorities seized hundreds of thousands of individual packets of synthetic drugs and hundreds of kilograms of synthetic products used to make the drugs.
Authorities also seized more than $20 million in cash and assets, the DEA said.
Wednesday’s enforcement project was called “Project Synergy 2.” An enforcement project called “Project Synergy” in June 2013 resulted in four indictments against members of a New Mexico family and also seizures of drugs, money, guns and property.
The DEA has been cracking down on synthetic drugs, including so-called bath salts, spice and Molly, since the drugs first gained widespread popularity years ago.
In late 2010, the agency responsible for enforcing federal drug laws moved to ban five chemicals used to make synthetic marijuana blends, including K2, Spice and Blaze. Since then, drug manufacturers have continued to modify their formulas and develop new chemical mixtures.
Ferdinand Large, staff coordinator for DEA’s Special Operations Division, said the agency is now broadly focused on Chinese chemical manufacturers and the distributors, wholesalers and retailers in the United States. There is also growing concern about where the money is going.
Investigators have tracked hundreds of millions of dollars in drug proceeds being sent to Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, Large said.
“The money is going there, where it stops we don’t know,” Large said.
Large said it’s also unclear which criminal organizations may be profiting from the drug proceeds.
U.S. authorities long have worried about criminal and terrorist groups in the Middle East using drug trafficking to fund illicit activities.
In a November 2013 report on transnational organized crime, DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart said “drug trafficking organizations and terror networks are joined at the hip in many parts of the world.
“DEA must relentlessly purse these dangerous individuals and criminal groups that attempt to use drug trafficking profits to fuel and fund terror networks, such as Hezbollah,” Leonhart said.
Payne said Wednesday’s crackdown was focused strictly on U.S. targets and involved 66 DEA cases, seven investigations led by Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agents and several others led by Customs and Border Protection that focused on express consignment shipments.
Last year, the DEA and Customs and Border Protection wrapped up a 7-month investigation that ended in 150 arrests and the seizure of about a ton of drugs. Besides Alabama and New Mexico, Wednesday’s raids took place in Alaska, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
Journal staff writer Ryan Boetel contributed to this report.