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Tucson cops, feds roll up UPS ring trafficking potentially deadly THC vape pens

Federal agents, local officers seize cars, drugs & 50,000 counterfeit vape pens of type linked to recent deaths

Tucson Police Department officers and Homeland Security agents took down a "sophisticated" scheme to ship drugs and cash through UPS, arresting 11 men and seizing 50,000 counterfeit THC vape pens of the type linked to recent deaths.

Over the last two weeks, special agents with Homeland Security Investigations, a part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and TPD officers began making arrests and seizing "distribution quantities of drugs," along with commercial-grade equipment used to manufacture concentrated extracts for THC vape pens, and around 50,000 "counterfeit" THC vape pens. Officials also seized cash, as well as more than a dozen vehicles, including a Chevrolet Corvette, Ford Raptor trucks, and a Range Rover, said Yasmeen Pitts-O'Keefe, an ICE spokeswoman.

Agents arrested 11 people for their alleged involvement in the scheme, including four UPS employees — drivers and supervisors — after discovering that they were using "sophisticated methods and techniques" to defeat both internal and law enforcement measures to "identify and intercept parcels containing contraband," she said.

Some of those arrested had been shipping illegal items via UPS for more than a decade, working for multiple drug cartels, said Cpt. John Leavitt, a TPD officer who is the commander of the Counter Narcotics Alliance.

The investigation began in 2017, after officials discovered signs that the group was using United Parcel Service, better known as UPS, to smuggle "bulk narcotics" to the East Coast and send cash back to Tucson.

After a lengthy probe that included wiretaps, search warrants were served in the investigation beginning about two weeks ago, with those arrested being booked over about eight days at the end of an investigation "with no leaks," Leavitt said.

The arrested men face charges for possession, drug possession for sale, money laundering, conspiracy, and at least one faces charges for misconduct involving weapons, Pitts-O'Keefe said. 

They are: Fernando Navarro-Figueroa, 32; Raul Garcia Cordova, 47; Abraham Felix-Navarro, 27; Heriberto Martinez-Bojorquez, 24; Thomas Mendoza, 47; Victor Molina, 32; Mario Barcelo, 49; Michael Castro, 34; Jonathan Gallegos, 26; Gary Love, 40; and Martin Siqueiros, 31.

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There will likely be more local arrests as the investigation continues, Leavitt told TucsonSentinel.com.

"The vape pens that were confiscated are exactly the kind that the CDC warned about," Leavitt told the Sentinel. "They are the pens that are likely implicated in the death and illnesses related to THC cartridges across the country."

The bootleg cartridges were "in various stages of preparation," he said. He could not say if the vape pens contained the vitamin E acetate that's been linked as a potential causative factor in many recent deaths linked to vaping with counterfeit THC cartridges.

More than 2,200 cases of lung injury and 47 deaths have been linked to e-cigarette use by the CDC. A test of 29 patients found vitamin E acetate — used as a thickening agent in vape fluid — in all of them, with THC found in 82 percent of the samples and nicotine in 62 percent.

'Sophisticated delivery service'

The arrested men "offered a very sophisticated delivery service," Leavitt said.

The UPS workers involved in the scheme operated as "free agents" for several drug trafficking organizations, Leavitt said.

"The larger implication of the investigation is that any product, guns, drugs, or WMDs could have been shipped across the country by these criminals," Leavitt said. "They had no standards as to what could be shipped."

"They shipped for anybody," the TPD captain said.

The ring shipped "hard drugs" as well, but Leavitt declined to specify which.

"Many drug trafficking organizations have exploited this vulnerability over the past decade. Drugs of all types have been shipped," Leavitt told the Sentinel. "Taking them out is a major blow to traffickers. They will be forced to (use) other avenues that put them at greater risk."

"Packages were shipped to specific people in other states that were part of the scheme," he said. "we are actively working with UPS security services to close the vulnerabilities everywhere."

TucsonSentinel.com could not identify defense attorneys for the arrested men Tuesday to request comment on the case.

"This investigation’s success is a direct result of the strong partnership between HSI Tucson and our local, state and federal law enforcement partners,” said Chad Plantz, deputy special agent in charge for HSI Tucson. "Close coordination between law enforcement agencies and harnessing our collective resources is essential to ensuring alleged criminals like those arrested are removed from our community."

"This investigation has identified and mitigated vulnerabilities in the shipping infrastructure that has allowed for the undetected trafficking of narcotics for more than a decade," said TPD's Leavitt in a news release. "It would not be possible to successfully prosecute these criminals without the expertise, resources, and commitment from our federal law enforcement partners." 

Leavitt also praised the alliance that's included under the Arizona High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a designation that includes eight Arizona counties, including the state's border counties of Pima, Santa Cruz, Cochise and Yuma. 

"HSI through the Tucson Financial Task Force, was an absolutely essential partner in moving this case to prosecution. A dozen other agencies had a part of this tremendous effort largely because of the leadership within those agencies, and because of the coordination of the Arizona HIDTA," said Leavitt in a news release.

The Arizona Attorney General's office is leading the prosecutions, Pitts-O'Keefe said.

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