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Originally published Tuesday, May 26, 2009 at 3:33 PM

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Man convicted in reservation drug conspiracy

A man accused of leading a conspiracy to distribute hundreds of pounds of methamphetamine in North Dakota, primarily through the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation, is facing life in prison after his conviction in federal court Tuesday.

Associated Press Writer

FARGO, N.D. —

A man accused of leading a conspiracy to distribute hundreds of pounds of methamphetamine in North Dakota, primarily through the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation, is facing life in prison after his conviction in federal court Tuesday.

Miguel Angel Chavez was found guilty of six counts. The most serious charge, continuing criminal enterprise, carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole.

Prosecutors said the operation led by Chavez, who lived primarily in eastern Washington and Oregon, brought at least 200 pounds of meth into North Dakota, more than any other organization prosecuted in the state's federal court system.

"It is fair to describe it as being in the neighborhood of 200 pounds, a staggering quantity, representing 181,000 individual half-gram dosages," U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley said.

"The case not only represents the largest volume of meth in North Dakota - this organization was tied to extremely high levels of drug trafficking out of Mexico," Wrigley said Tuesday outside the courthouse. "There's a lot of people being prosecuted in this district who haven't spent much time here."

Chavez, 33, also was convicted of money laundering, possession with intent to distribute and identity theft. Defense attorney Jeff Bredahl did not argue against those charges in last week's closing arguments, but said his client was not guilty of the continuing criminal enterprise charge.

Bredahl said afterward he plans to appeal.

"While we respect the jury's decision, we don't think it's supported by the facts," he said.

Jurors got the case late Friday but recessed for the holiday weekend. Sentencing has been set for Aug. 11.

Authorities said the pipeline stretched from Mexico, Texas, California and Washington to the Turtle Mountain Reservation and other towns in North Dakota. The investigation, known as Operation Paint by Numbers, began in 2002 with the seizure of 4 pounds of meth in Fargo.

Investigators started to focus on Chavez after he was suspected of assuming the identities of two other people, Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Myers said.

"By a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck, we were able to figure out whose identities he was using," Myers said. "The case took on a life of its own and became unraveled at that point."

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The name of the investigation refers to the information gained from analyzing telephone calls and other records that painted a picture based on the numbers, Myers said.

About two-dozen people have been indicted in the case, and most pleaded guilty. One defendant started using meth in his 50s, and has successfully completed drug treatment, Wrigley said.

"There's always a silver lining in everything," Wrigley said. "We met a lot of people in this case who were either cooperating witnesses or defendants, and a lot of them are clean now."

The case overlapped with another major drug conspiracy known as Operation Speed Racer, which indicted more than 60 people. The two cases originated from different cartels in Mexico, Myers said.

"That gives you a sense of the volume of drugs coming into North Dakota," he said.

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