Four men have been arrested in a sweeping international narcotics and weapons trafficking scheme to get American-made surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) to armed ethnic groups in Burma in exchange for huge amounts of meth and heroin that they planned to distribute in New York, Manhattan federal prosecutors said Thursday.
All four men, one from Japan, two from Thailand and one with dual citizenship in the U.S. and Thailand, were arrested in the last few days in Manhattan, prosecutors said. All were ordered detained after their preliminary hearings. The Japanese man, Takeshi Ebisawa, was the alleged ringleader of the multi-national operation, court docs say.
The DEA has been investigating Ebisawa since about 2019, according to the allegations. He is an alleged leader within the Japanese transnational organized crime syndicate known as Yakuza, which has affiliates in Asia, Europe, and the Americas.
Prosecutors say Yakuza is involved in various criminal activities, including weapons trafficking, drug trafficking, human trafficking, fraud, and money laundering. Over the course of the investigation, Ebisawa allegedly introduced an undercover DEA agent posing as a narcotics and weapons trafficker to associates in his international criminal network, which spans Japan, Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka, and the U.S.
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The purpose was to arrange large-scale narcotics and weapons transactions, prosecutors allege -- and Ebisawa and his associates allegedly negotiated mutliple such transactions with the undercover DEA agent.
Those transactions included a conspiracy to buy SAMs, as well as other heavy-duty weaponry, from him to send to multiple ethnic armed groups in Burma. They agreed to accept large quantities of heroin and methamphetamine for distribution as partial payment, according to court documents. The defendants believed the weapons were manufactured in the U.S. and taken from U.S. military bases in Afghanistan.
Ebisawa and one of his alleged co-conspirators planned to use the more than 1,100 pounds each of meth and heroin they were expected to get as payment for distribution in New York, court documents say. One defendant provided samples of the drugs in June and September in furtherance of the transaction, prosecutors said, and conspired to use machine guns and other weapons to protect narcotics shipments.
Ebisawa also allegedly worked to launder $100,000 in purported narcotics proceeds from the United States to Japan, prosecutors said.
"We allege Mr. Ebisawa and his co-conspirators brokered deals with an undercover DEA agent to buy heavy-duty weaponry and sell large quantities of illegal drugs," Damian Williams, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York said. "The drugs were destined for New York streets, and the weapons shipments were meant for factions in unstable nations. Members of this international crime syndicate can no longer put lives in danger and will face justice for their illicit actions.”
DEA Administrator Anne Milgram cited the "expansive reach" of such criminal networks as a severe threat to the health and safety of people across the globe.
"Ebisawa and his associates intended to distribute hundreds of kilograms of methamphetamine and heroin to the United States, using deadly weapons to enable their criminal activities, at a time when nearly 300 Americans lose their lives to drug overdose every day," she said. "These arrests represent the unwavering determination of the DEA, together with our U.S. and international partners, to target and bring to justice violent criminals who lead transnational drug trafficking organizations that continue to flood our country with dangerous drugs."
Charges against the defendants include conspiracy to import narcotics, conspiracy to possess firearms, including machine guns and destructive devices, conspiracy to acquire, transfer, and possess SAMs and money laundering.
Almost all include maximum sentences of life in prison. Details on an attorney for Ebisawa weren't immediately available.