The judge who recently sentenced Yi Qing Chen noted that the smuggler “never saw a criminal scheme he didn’t want a part of.” The Southern California man was convicted last October of distributing methamphetamine, trafficking approximately 800,000 cases of counterfeit cigarettes, and conspiracy to import Chinese-made shoulder-fired missiles into the U.S.
Chen is now serving a 25-year prison sentence, and his case marks the end of a long-running investigation called Operation Smoking Dragon.
Smoking Dragon and a related case in New Jersey called Operation Royal Charm led to the indictment of 87 individuals from China, Taiwan, Canada, and the U.S. The investigations uncovered–and dismantled–an international smuggling ring that could have threatened the country’s national security.
Charges against the subjects included smuggling real and phony drugs and other contraband into the U.S. along with counterfeit $100 bills–believed to have been produced in North Korea–that were so nearly perfect and so much more sophisticated than typical counterfeit currency they were dubbed “Supernotes.”
The eight-year investigation began when FBI undercover agents, posing as underworld criminals, helped make sure that shipping containers full of counterfeit cigarettes made it past U.S. Customs officers undetected.Over time, as undercover agents won the smugglers’ trust, they were asked to facilitate other illegal shipments such as narcotics and millions of dollars in Supernotes. Later, the smugglers offered a variety of Chinese military-grade weapons, including the QW-2 surface-to-air missiles.
“There is only one purpose for shoulder-fired missiles like the QW-2, and that is to bring down aircraft,” said Special Agent Omar Trevino, who worked the case from the beginning. “Smoking Dragon dismantled an international smuggling ring, and it illustrated that organized crime groups will stop at nothing to make a profit.”