Three Twin Cities women were intercepted Tuesday at Chicago O'Hare International Airport, allegedly carrying more than $3 million worth of heroin and opium concealed in bags of tea leaves.
The women and drugs were believed to be on their way to Minnesota, said Kent Bailey, head of the Minneapolis Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) office.
"We do have opium coming in here on a regular basis," he said, adding that Chicago is a common stopover.
Chicago police and U.S. Customs are investigating Tuesday's case, but Bailey's office received an internal memo about the arrests in light of the drug's tie to Minnesota and the state's Hmong community, where Bailey nearly always, if not exclusively, sees its distribution.
Pa Yang, 57, and Mai Vue Vang, 58, both of St. Paul, and True Thao, 52, of Brooklyn Center, were arrested by agents after they left an international flight from Japan at O'Hare's Terminal 5, Chicago police said.
The women passed through customs, claimed their bags and were pulled aside for additional screening, said public affairs officer Kris Grogan.
Agents found 470 packets of a brown powdery substance concealed inside clear plastic bags of tea leaves. The powder tested positive for opium.
The combined weight of the contraband was 31.5 kilograms (about 70 pounds), according to Chicago police.
The women, who flew from Vientiane, Laos, were arrested and each charged with one felony count of manufacturing and delivery of a controlled substance.
"Even though these would-be smugglers are trying new concealment methods each and every day, I just want to remind them that if they try to get through Chicago, we will catch them," said Matthew Davies, Chicago Area port director.
The women seem like unlikely traffickers, but Bailey said that's exactly the point.
"Who's using the old, blue-haired grandmother?" Bailey said. "These organizations that use mules to traffic drugs are always recruiting people we don't look for".
"It's a constant cat-and-mouse battle."
Bailey said the women had not been on his office's radar until their arrests.
It can be difficult to determine whether they were willing participants or coerced, but Bailey said that in his long career with the DEA, few traffickers are truly forced to move drugs against their will.
"There's no doubt they know what they're doing," he said. "I don't know that they're shot-callers. It's all for money."
Bailey said it's unclear if a few large or several small distributors are behind the trade, exactly where the drugs are sold and whether the principle operators are foreign or stateside.
Unlike most drugs, opium doesn't appear to be funneled through street gangs.
"All my encounters [involving opium] are with middle-aged to older" people, Bailey said.
In April, Khoua Vang, 49, of Walnut Grove, Minn., was stopped at O'Hare, arrested and charged with multiple felonies after agents found 17 kilograms of opium and more than 3,500 methamphetamine pills worth almost $518,000 in her luggage.