‘ICE’ KINGPIN BUSTED ON GUAM

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‘ICE’ KINGPIN BUSTED ON GUAM

By David V. Crisostomo

HAGATNA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, May 18) – Federal officials this month made a break in a decade-old drug case involving what has been called one of Guam's most sophisticated "ice" smuggling rings.

U.S. Marshals on Guam apprehended Roland DeGuzman, an alleged kingpin in the case, on May 2. He had been sought, along with other suspects indicted in June, 2001, according to court documents.

DeGuzman was apprehended by U.S. Marshals after he arrived on Guam on a flight from Narita in an attempt to travel to Manila, said John Curry, deputy U.S. Marshal and warrant coordinator for Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

"He was apprehended within less than (an) hour after the system was alerted," Curry said. "This is a huge break in this case. We are very excited about the capture of Mr. DeGuzman. This case has gotten cold, and his arrest could break open this case and close this case. This is like cutting off the legs of the spider.

"This will lead to the bigger bodies and the bigger fish," he added.

It was a complex drug ring that involved at least a dozen people who allegedly smuggled at least $1 million worth of methamphetamine hydrochloride, commonly known as "ice," on board Continental Airlines flights from Manila to Guam over a three-year period, federal officials say.

Couriers allegedly hid the drugs, wrapped in duct tape, under airline seats and in the plane's lavatories. The alleged conspiracy then reportedly involved LSG Lufthansa Service Sky Chef workers who would remove the drugs during the graveyard shift, according to court documents. The workers would then walk out of the island's airport with the drugs, undetected by Customs officials. Lufthansa officials yesterday declined to comment on the matter.

From 1995 to 1997, the drug smuggling ring, called the "Mercader ring" after alleged kingpin Mario F. Mercader, was responsible for importing at least 2,000 grams of ice to Guam, officials said, which today would have a street value of $1 million. The current street value of ice is $400 to $500 a gram, according to Drug Enforcement Administration officials.

As early as 1996, a Drug Enforcement Administration task force, made up of local and federal law enforcement officials, began dismantling the Mercader drug ring. The operation was known as "Operation Onepass."

Federal authorities indicted the four alleged masterminds in the case - Mercader, Editha I. Fuller, Ruperto A. Espinosa Jr. and Larry Vincent Toves Blas - in June 2001. Since then, more than a dozen low-level couriers, who were allegedly responsible for transporting the ice, and two of the four alleged masterminds in the ring have been convicted in the case.

In 2004, the case went cold after the two alleged lead masterminds -- Mercader and his girlfriend, Fuller -- and the last alleged low-level courier, Roland DeGuzman, a former Lufthansa employee, remained missing.

The DEA and U.S. Marshals have been interviewing DeGuzman, Curry said. Officials believe DeGuzman had been in hiding in various places.

"Mr. DeGuzman says he has not been hiding, but we think he has been able to elude capture for the better half of five years through different types of ruses," Curry said.

DeGuzman was initially indicted on April 26, 2000, on a charge of attempted possession of methamphetamine hydrochloride with intent to distribute, which carries a maximum prison term of 10 years, according to U.S. District Court of Guam documents. The charge stemmed from a Feb. 4, 1999, arrest in which authorities allegedly caught DeGuzman with 711.9 grams of ice -- worth more than $250,000.

DeGuzman appeared before Magistrate Judge Joaquin V.E. Manibusan on May 3 and DeGuzman pleaded not guilty. DeGuzman will go to trial July 5.

DEA officials did not want to comment on the case and deferred all questions to Assistant U.S. Attorney Karon Johnson, the lead prosecutor in the case.

"Mr. DeGuzman is the last of the lower-level couriers that have been apprehended in this case," Johnson said. "The Mercader ring was a very complex operation that brought in ice to this community for years. It was very sophisticated."

The damage done by the alleged Mercader ring to the community is immeasurable, Johnson said.

Mercader and Fuller were the alleged key masterminds of the alleged smuggling operation, according to court documents.

Mercader, who had worked for Lufthansa, allegedly recruited and hired other Lufthansa workers on the graveyard shift to bring the drugs into Guam, court documents state.

Couriers would travel to the Philippines, where Fuller allegedly arranged for the purchase and delivery of ice, court documents state. The couriers would hide the ice in their shoes and board a Continental flight bound for Guam.

At the time, security officials at the Manila airport did not check passengers' shoes, Johnson said.

The couriers allegedly hid packages of ice under seats or in lavatories. The Lufthansa employees allegedly unloaded the drugs and walked out of the airport.

Customs officials at the time were not thoroughly searching airport-related employees as they left the airport, Johnson said.

Mercader allegedly paid each courier between $1,000 and nearly $10,000 for successfully smuggling the drugs into Guam, court documents state.

The case was broken in November 1997 when a DEA task force replaced a package of drugs with fake ice, using rock salt, during a pickup in November 1997, according to court documents.

DEA officials in court documents say there were weekly drug deliveries involving the alleged Mercader ring. The drugs would be delivered to Mercader at such places as Blockbuster in Dededo and the Dededo Pay-Less Supermarket, court documents state. The drugs allegedly were sold out of rented hotel rooms, court documents state.

There was little publicity about Operation Onepass when the indictments against the alleged masterminds were handed down in June 2001, because the case was sealed in federal court as law enforcement authorities began "taking out" the drug couriers and alleged ring leaders, Johnson said.

Two of the smuggling ring's masterminds already are serving prison sentences, Johnson said.

On Sept. 24, 2004, Ruperto A. Espinosa Jr. pleaded guilty to conspiracy to import methamphetamine hydrochloride, conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine hydrochloride, importation of methamphetamine hydrochloride and distribution of methamphetamine hydrochloride. He is serving a 12-year federal prison term.

Larry Vincent Torres Blas pleaded guilty to distribution of methamphetamine hydrochloride on Dec. 7, 2004, and is serving a nine-year federal prison term.

Checks in place

At the airport, Guam Customs and Quarantine officials yesterday said systems are now in place to ensure that airport-related workers go through screening before leaving the airport.

"Integrity checks are taking place, which include dog search and manual searches of individuals coming out of areas of the airport," said Maj. Philip Taijeron Jr., assistant chief of the Guam Customs special enforcement division.

Federal officials say Operation Onepass remains active until Mercader and Fuller are apprehended.

Mercader and Fuller remain at large and are believed to be hiding somewhere in the Philippines, Johnson said.

"We're waiting for them to travel," Johnson said. "That's when we will get them."

May 18, 2005

Pacific Daily News: www.guampdn.com

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