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American drug-enforcement officers allege a southeast Alberta hamlet was the destination for a haul of cocaine being moved through a pipeline involving close-knit members of the Mennonite community and one of the world’s most notorious Mexican cartels.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) laid charges against seven people in relation to the alleged trafficking operation this week.  It’s believed all but one of the accused were members of a Mexican Mennonite community in the state of Chihuahua and had direct links to the Juarez drug cartel, widely considered to be one of the most brutal criminal organizations in the world.

The drug bust involved 11,000 pounds of marijuana that agents believe was to be distributed to various states in the U.S. and 30 kilograms of cocaine that Kevin Merrill, DEA Assistant Special Agent in Charge, said was bound for Grassy Lake, Alta., a small hamlet located about an hour east of Lethbridge.

“We had targets that we had identified through phone records that they were talking to up there,” he said, adding more charges in connection with the drug bust were possible.

Merrill indicated his organization worked with Canadian authorities but a request for comment from the RCMP’s federal communications office had not been returned at press time.

Mennonites are members of a church that has been around for nearly 500 years.

“Today, you won’t recognize most Mennonites by how they dress,” one website reads. “But you will find vibrant Mennonite congregations through rural areas, small towns and large cities across Canada and throughout the world.”

Southeastern Alberta in particular became a common migration point for Mennonites from Mexico and Bolivia in the 1990s. According to 2001 census data, the total Mennonite population in Alberta was 22,785 and in some smaller towns and hamlets, including Grassy Lake, the community can account for up to three quarters of the resident population.

Merrill said Mexican cartels tend to rely on family ties or close friends when it comes to their trafficking operations because, “It limits the number of people, if they get arrested, that will co-operate against them.”

Peter, a Grassy Lake business owner who asked his last name be withheld, moved to the area from Mexico a quarter-century ago.

When informed of the alleged link to the drug pipeline, he said he wasn’t surprised.

“Bad economy, people have got to make money somehow . . . you never really know what’s going on, people here try to keep to themselves,” he said.

Merrill said it was “certainly possible” that some of the drugs allegedly being trafficked would have ended up in Calgary. It’s believed that passenger vehicles with custom-designed, hidden compartments were being used to move the drugs across both the U.S. and Canadian borders.

Still, Merrill said the case was not necessarily indicative of a widespread problem among Alberta Mennonites.

“I’m not disparaging a whole Mennonite class of people,” he said. “These people were the bad apples of their community.”

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