Two men orchestrated an international fentanyl trafficking ring involving dealers in the U.S. and China from a prison in Quebec, according to newly released U.S. court documents that outline the complex global networks fueling the trade of the drug that’s been linked to thousands of overdose deaths across North America in recent years.
The charges from U.S. law enforcement raise questions about security in a Canadian federal prison if inmates were able to coordinate an international drug trafficking from behind bars. Canadian prison officials wouldn’t comment on the case, but say they have zero tolerance for illicit drugs in prisons.
The U.S. court records were made public this week after a couple from South Florida was charged with conspiracy to distribute fentanyl after about a dozen federal agents raided their home on Wednesday afternoon.
Fentanyl is now the leading cause of overdose deaths in the U.S., and opioid-related overdoses continue to spike every year. Synthetic opioids including fentanyl were linked to 21,000 deaths in 2016, doubling the rate from the year before, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control. Thousands of people in Canada are expected to die of opioid-related deaths this year.
The accused ensured anonymity using fake names and email addresses to conduct their business including “Oddcouple” and “Silent Wisdom”
Florida residents Anthony Gomes and Elizabeth Ton are the latest accused in the international drug ring that U.S. officials say imported hundreds of grams of fentanyl and its analogues from China and Canada, and then distributed it across at least 11 states from 2013 to August 2016. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) began its investigation into the fentanyl importation ring after an 18-year-old man died from overdosing on the drug in Grand Forks, North Dakota in 2015.
There are seven others accused on the most recent indictment, including Jason Joey Berry who’s currently serving time in a Quebec jail for other drug convictions, and who the indictment claims helped lead the trafficking operation from prison.
A Colombian man, Daniel Vivas Ceron, who served time in the same Quebec prison for four counts of attempted murder, was charged previously in 2015 by U.S. officials in connection to the trafficking operation, after he was released from the Drummond Institution outside of Montreal after a parole hearing 2015. He then was deported to Panama where he was re-arrested and detained, and earlier this year was extradited to North Dakota to face the charges.
Jason Joey Berry is still in jail in Canada, according to federal prison authorities. But that didn’t stop him and Vivas Ceron from being the “organizers and leaders of this criminal conspiracy in Canada… while incarcerated in the Drummond Institution,” according to the U.S. indictment.
The latest indictment also names Jian Zhang aka “Hong Kong Zaron” as another co-conspirator who they claim helped Vivas Ceron and Berry get fentanyl from China by establishing a business there called “Zaron Bio-Tech.”
The accused ensured anonymity while communicating about the operation using an encrypted app and a range of fake names and email addresses to conduct their business including “Oddcouple,” “Silent Wisdom,” and “Canada.email@example.com,” the latest indictment states.
“While offenders incarcerated in federal correctional facilities have limited access to computers, they do not have access to the Internet or to e-mail”
Berry is currently serving 12 years for drug offences and other charges and his sentence is set to expire in 2023, a spokesperson for Correctional Service Canada said by email, refusing to confirm his exact location and whether he will be extradited to the U.S. on the new charges once he is released in Canada.
The spokesperson also said the department could not commend on specific cases.
“While offenders incarcerated in federal correctional facilities have limited access to computers, they do not have access to the Internet or to e-mail,” the Corrections Service spokesperson told Vice News. “We have a zero tolerance policy on illegal drugs in institutions. Preventing and reducing the number of contraband items and illicit drugs in correctional institutions is an ongoing priority for us.”
As for Vivas Ceron, he was released on parole and ordered deported back to Colombia in July 2016. That never happened. Instead, he was arrested in Panama and indicted as part of the fentanyl trafficking ring.
Vivas Ceron’s alleged involvement in the fentanyl ring was detailed in 2015 when another Florida man, Aldolphe Joseph, was charged with drug trafficking and importing fentanyl into the state from China with help from Vivas Ceron while he was imprisoned.
An undercover operation, with the help of the RCMP, alleged that Vivas Ceron had communicated with Joseph to arrange the shipments, according to court records in Joseph’s case.
In 2015, Vivas Ceron’s cell was searched and authorities reportedly found the cell phone and drug ledger that included Joseph’s address and details of drug orders.
In 2016, Joseph pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 10 years in U.S. prison.
The Florida couple arrested this week, Gomes and Ton, are expected back in federal court in Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday. A spokesperson for the U.S. Court in North Dakota refused to say when the co-accused, including Berry, will next appear.