Law-enforcement officials said members of Guatemala’s Ipala Cartel shipped large amounts of heroin into the United States, hiding drugs in food, primarily sugar wafers, brownies, soups, lollipops and other candy.
BALTIMORE — The tip came on the last day of January 2014 to special agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE): A drug courier was about to land at the Baltimore airport with a large shipment.
Hours later, the agents asked the man, Edgar Franco Lopez, a Guatemalan, if they could search the three large duffel bags he was loading in a car outside the airport. But agents found only food. So they bluffed, saying they had found evidence of drugs in the bags.
The driver, Edwin Quintana Carranza, a Mexican in the United States illegally who had claimed the bags were his and consented to the search, confessed. The drugs were hidden in the sugar wafers, he said.
Lopez and Carranza were key links in a drug-smuggling network that stretched thousands of miles from Guatemala to Baltimore, according to court records and interviews with agents involved in the case. Law-enforcement officials said members of Guatemala’s Ipala Cartel, a drug-trafficking organization named for the city where it is based, shipped large amounts of heroin into the United States, hiding drugs in food, primarily sugar wafers, brownies, soups, lollipops and other candy.
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Instead of smuggling heroin through ports of entry or across the border, the cartel’s traffickers exploited weaknesses in border security: parcels shipped through the mail, UPS and FedEx; air cargo; and travel on transit systems with relatively little security, like Amtrak. Their packages were factory-sealed and showed no signs of tampering, suggesting they might have had access to a food-processing factory, agents involved in the case said.
The case highlights the increasingly sophisticated tactics drug-trafficking organizations use to largely bypass traditional border-security screening systems and walls. Even as the United States spends billions of dollars along the Mexico border — the main route for drug trafficking — as part of President Donald Trump’s crackdown on national security, the traffickers have found ways to avoid the cameras, drones, drug dogs and agents along the border, officials said.
Agents say the group may have also used the mail and parcels to avoid paying Mexican drug…