Federal authorities said Thursday they have taken down an international drug trafficking ring based in Ghana that used couriers flying through Dulles International Airport to smuggle large amounts of heroin up and down the East Coast.
Officials said the case reflects how west Africa has become a hotbed for international shipments of illegal drugs.
Seven of the eight suspects were arrested Thursday, including three in Ghana. The four arrested in the U.S. _ two in Maryland, one in New York and one in Virginia _ all have ties to Ghana.
Authorities said the alleged ringleader, Edward Macauley, 61, also known as Cudjoe Opoku, was arrested in Ghana. U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride, the top prosecutor for the Eastern District of Virginia, said at a news conference Thursday that he expects Macauley and the others arrested in Ghana to be extradited to the United States to face drug charges that carry a mandatory 10-year minimum sentence and a maximum of life in prison.
MacBride said the charges reflect a conscious strategy by his office and the Justice Department to focus on international trafficking rings and "take out the leaders regardless of where they reside."
Similarly, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the lead investigative agency on the case, said the DEA has agents in 66 countries working international cases, and received strong cooperation from Ghanaian authorities on this investigation.
"This reflects an in-depth strategy to go after (traffickers) in their backyard, in their home country," said Ava Cooper-Davis, special agent in charge for the DEA's Washington division.
According to court papers filed by prosecutors, the organization recruited Ghanaian citizens living legally in the U.S. to act as couriers who were paid up to $15,000 per trip to smuggle as much as $250,000 worth of heroin on international flights from Ghana to Dulles, located in northern Virginia. Typically the heroin was carefully packed in the lining of carry-on bags to evade detection at the airport.
Officials declined to speculate how much heroin the group was able to smuggle into the U.S., but MacBride said the ring had only been in operation for about a year and credited the DEA with quickly identifying the operation and taking it down.
Court records do not list attorneys for any of the eight defendants.