Authorities said the ring distributed cocaine and heroin to street-level dealers in downtown Wilmington; Elkton, Md.; and Avondale and Kennett Square, Pa.
All defendants named in the 20-count superseding indictment, including a former Wilmington resident wanted on an outstanding murder warrant, are charged with possession with intent to distribute five or more kilograms of cocaine and one or more kilograms of heroin, and conspiracy to smuggle similar amounts of those drugs. Each of those charges carries a mandatory prison term of 10 years upon conviction, and a maximum sentence of life.
Assistant United States Attorney Robert Kravetz said the smuggling network involved female couriers who tried to cross the border between Mexico and Texas with packets of uncut cocaine and heroin sewn into Lycra shorts, using a cucumber-aloe mixture to try to thwart drug-sniffing dogs. After several couriers were arrested using that method, the smugglers resorted to sewing packets of drugs into hair weaves and wigs.
After receiving the drugs in Panama, the couriers traveled by bus or plane to Mexico, then attempted to cross on foot into the United States at Texas border towns including Laredo, McAllen and Brownsville.
Authorities said 10 of the defendants named in the indictment are either in custody or under supervised release, including three alleged couriers in Panama for whom authorities are seeking extradition.
But the two alleged Panama-based ringleaders, Efrain Dixon and Benjamin Carpenter, are still at large, authorities said. Kravetz said Dixon, 31, fled to Panama City after a warrant was issued for his arrest in connection with a 2006 murder in Wilmington. Dixon and Carpenter are believed to be based in Colon, Panama, according to authorities.
"We've had extensive cooperation with authorities in Panama," Kravetz said.
Kravetz said Ronaldo Edmund, 36, of Wilmington is related to Dixon and Carpenter was a key player in the alleged smuggling ring. According to authorities, Edmund, along with Kelvin Cook, 33, of Newark, and Julio Archer, 39, of Philadelphia, recruited the couriers to travel to Panama to get the drugs from Carpenter and Dixon. Kravetz said Edmund, who was arrested in June, would meet the couriers in San Antonio, then drive or take a Greyhound bus back to Wilmington. Edmund, Archer and Cook remain in custody. Lawyers for all three men did not immediately return telephone messages Monday.
Authorities said 10 couriers have been arrested in the United States and nine in Panama. Four have pleaded guilty to smuggling charges and been sentenced in federal court in Texas, and another, Tissany Buckham is awaiting sentencing in federal court in Delaware after pleading guilty in August. Buckham's attorney did not immediately return a telephone message Monday.
Kravetz estimated that the drug network allegedly smuggled or attempted to smuggle at least 15 kilograms of cocaine and five kilograms of heroin over a three-year period starting in 2008.