A federal indictment was unsealed Friday accusing 170 people of taking part in a billion-dollar drug smuggling conspiracy in which authorities said Panamanian strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega could have been charged had he not already been indicted.
The indictment accuses the group of conspiring to import 1,448,000 pounds of marijuana, making it one of the biggest drug rings smashed in the country."I don't know of any bigger case than this," U.S. Attorney Joseph Cage Jr. told a news conference.
"It would be about $1 billion if sold on the street," said Drug Enforcement Agency agent Charles Sullivan.
Cage said arrests were underway as the result of the sealed indictments returned June 6 in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana.
The indictment named defendants from the United States, Panama, Colombia, Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. Scores of the defendants were listed merely as "John Doe."
A 2 1/2-year investigation, code-named "Operation Bulldog," also led to the indictment of about 82 defendants in three other federal judicial districts, said Cage, who was joined at the news conference by other members of the task force.
"For example, the grand jury in Tampa, Fla., returned an indictment alleging that Manuel Noriega laundered through Panamanian banks and businesses millions of dollars in U.S. currency representing the profits from the successful importation of the 280,000 pounds of marijuana at Bancker, La.," Cage said.
The indictment said 100 of the defendants traveled to Lafayette to take part in the smuggling of 280,000 pounds of marijuana. It said about 250,000 pounds was successfully unloaded from a tug and barge near Bancker, La., but another 30,000 pounds apparently was abandoned.
"This organization, which is the subject of this indictment, is sophisticated, well-orchestrated and rivals any multinational corporation," Cage said. "This organization's sole motivation - greed and money - caused its scope and influence to transcend local, national and international boundaries."
"These illegal activities reach all levels of society," Cage said, noting the defendants included retired Air Force officer Sammie Charles Simonton of Bossier City, La., and W.J. Everett, a former chief deputy sheriff of College Station, Texas.