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NEW YORK (AP) - A ruthless syndicate of ethnic Albanians in the United States, Canada and Europe orchestrated a multimillion drug-dealing scheme spanning a decade, at times hiding shipments of cocaine in luxury cars and using gunplay and other violence to protect its turf, U.S. authorities said Wednesday.
An indictment unsealed in federal court in Brooklyn charged 37 people with multiple counts of conspiracy to smuggle and distribute massive amounts of high-grade marijuana and cocaine.
A strike force of agents and officers from the Drug Enforcement Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the New York Police Department and other agencies arrested most of the defendants Wednesday during raids in the New York City area, New Jersey, Colorado and Florida.
U.S. authorities said one reputed ringleader named in the indictment, Arif "The Bear" Kurti, already is serving time in Albania for heroin trafficking, but has continued to give orders from behind bars using smart phones smuggled into prison.
Court papers filed in New York described the ring as a network of "several inter-related ethnic Albanian family clans" that spanned the globe in pursuit of illicit profits and used violence "for the specific purpose of intimidating, eliminating or retaliating against witnesses and law enforcement agents."
Earlier this year, three of the defendants gave a "clean-cut" patron of a Bronx bar a vicious beating because they suspected he was an undercover officer who was following them, the court papers said. A dispute over a drug debt prompted two ring members to track down another victim June 4 at a busy Bronx cafe, where they pulled guns, chased him out the door and shot him in both legs, the papers added.
A four-year investigation found that the ring smuggled tens of thousands of kilos of marijuana into the United States from Mexico and Canada by hiding it in tractor trailers carrying legitimate cargo, court papers said. The drugs were stashed in warehouses in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx before being distributed throughout the city and suburbs.
The syndicate also smuggled cocaine inside hidden compartments in luxury sedans shipped by U.S. car dealers to Albania and elsewhere in Europe, authorities said. Last year, one of the ring's couriers was caught at the airport in Lima, Peru carrying clothing saturated with 24 kilos of liquid cocaine, they added.
Raids in New York on Wednesday resulted in the recovery of 18 firearms and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, authorities said. Previous seizures in Manhattan netted nearly $2 million in alleged drug proceeds.