Denver, Co. (AP) - A group of Mexican Mennonites are accused by federal authorities of working with the JuĂˇrez drug cartel to move tons of pot to Colorado Springs and North Carolina.
"They would grow, process, package the marijuana, and manufacture the sealed compartments" they installed in large pieces of farm machinery, then truck it across the border, said Kevin Merrill, Drug Enforcement Administration Assistant Special Agent in Charge.
A federal grand jury in Denver has indicted seven people, all but one members of the Mexican Mennonite community in Ciudad CuauhtĂ©moc, a town in the Mexican state of Chihuahua., for involvement in the operation.
Some drivers who transported the drug were from the Mennonite community, others were members of the notoriously brutal cartel, Merrill said.
The suspects paid a "tariff to the cartel to get across the border," Merrill said. "You can try to be independent, but if the cartel finds out, you are going to pay more than a tariff."
The DEA seized at least 11,000 pounds of marijuana, and 30 kilos of cocaine, Merrill said. The cocaine was bound for a Mennonite drug operation in Calgary, Canada, he added.
So far, only Abraham Friesen-Remple is in custody, said Jeff Dorschner, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office. "The rest are fugitives," he said.
According to testimony at a detention hearing for Friesen-Remple, the ring first put the marijuana in the gas tanks of cars and later concealed it inside large pieces of farm equipment.
Originally, vehicles crossed the border and drove to Colorado Springs, where the marijuana was off-loaded at an auto-body repair shop, Merrill said. It was "a small mom and pop shop. It didn't even have a name."
Drivers then took the weed to various places across the country.
When the person who ran the body shop was arrested, the organization moved their U.S. trafficking hub from Colorado to North Carolina, where trucks carrying farm equipment continued to distribute the marijuana across the country.
Mennonites are members of a church formed in the 16th century. "Mennonites are known for their emphasis on issues such as peace, justice, simplicity, community, service, and mutual aid," according to the website of the Mennonite Church.
"They are industrious, hard-working people for the most part," Merrill said. "They do a lot of farming and unfortunately for this group their farming is marijuana.
"We believe this organization was operating for the last couple of years, working with the cartel to get their product across the border."
Also indicted are: Eduardo Tellez-Ponce, Ulises Castillo-Meraz, Enrique Harms-Groening, David Loewen, Juan Reimer and Pedro Dyke-Friesen.