Three women in their fifties from Minnesota were arrested at Chicago's O'Hare airport after US Customs and Border Protection agents found $3 million worth of heroin and opium concealed in bags of tea leaves inside their luggage.
The women — Pa Yang, 57, Mai Vue Vang, 58, and True Thao, 52 — were among many other travelers selected for international screening after they stepped off their flight from Japan on Tuesday, according to the Chicago Tribune. Border protection agents reportedly found numerous small packages of heroin and opium, which weighed a collective total of 31.5 kilograms.
All three were arrested and taken into custody at 4:20pm. It is not yet clear if the women's point of origin was Japan, or if they connected there from another airport. All three were taken into custody at the airport, and are scheduled to appear in court on Wednesday.
Last month, Khoua Vang, 49, from Minnesota was arrested at Chicago O'Hare after after agents found what they said was 17 kilograms of opium and more than 3,500 methamphetamine pills in her luggage. Vang had flown back to the United States from Laos via South Korea. She was charged with trafficking, possession, and delivery of methamphetamine and controlled substance trafficking, among other charges.
In March, agents in Minneapolis International Airport arrested a woman who had 33.5 pounds of opium powder concealed in a container labeled as green tea. Ma Lee Vue, 35, had flown in from Laos via Tokyo.
Earlier this year, Minnesota officials said that law enforcement teams had taken 82,000 doses of heroin off the streets in 2015 — a 125 percent jump from the previous year.
The border area between Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand is known as the Golden Triangle for its poppy cultivation and heroin production. Jeremy Douglas, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) representative for Southeast Asia, told VICE News last month that weak borders within the Golden Triangle make it ideal for smugglers to move contraband between countries.
"Between Laos and Thailand, you can pretty much get most things across," Douglas said. "It's not exactly rocket science. The same with Thailand and Myanmar — the flows aren't really held back by the control of mechanisms you'd have at most borders because they lack the protective capacity."
Opium poppy cultivation in the Golden Triangle tripled between 2006 and 2014, and has remained mostly stable at those high levels. While overall production is down in Myanmar, farmers in the region (particularly in rural areas and Laos) rely heavily on poppy cultivation.
"The region's demand for heroin remains at unacceptably high levels and transnational organized crime groups are making huge profits," a 2015 UNODC report said.
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