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Man sentenced for role in Mennonite-Mexican drug conspiracy

DENVER - In what prosecutors called a drug smuggling conspiracy between Mennonites and a Mexican drug cartel, a man was sentenced to 15 months in prison for aiding the movement of tons of marijuana to the U.S.

Abraham Friesen-Remple was sentenced in federal court in Denver to 15 months in prison after pleading guilty to using a telephone to facilitate the distribution of marijuana. A judge said he would likely be released later in the day because of time already served. Prosecutors said he played a minor role as a driver, helping the Juarez cartel smuggle drugs in gas tanks of cars and inside farm equipment.

Mennonite Christians have historical ties to the Amish, and are radical Protestant reformers originally known as Anabaptists who adopted pacifism and fled persecution in central Europe for North America. Some conservative Mennonite communities still wear traditional dress and avoid modern technologies.

Friesen-Remple was one of seven people indicted, all but one of whom are members of a Mexican Mennonite community in Chihuahua. Prosecutors also say the Mennonites also grew marijuana for the cartel.

The investigation involved wire taps in which 32,200 calls were recorded in Spanish and a German dialect used by Mennonites. Authorities said the operation moved to North Carolina after the arrest of a person who ran a Colorado auto body shop involved in the case.

"You had ready access to the border, and you had a skilled labor pool in terms of their ability to work with machinery and welding and anything that you would find in an agricultural community," said Glenn Gaasche, a supervisor in the Grand Junction, Colorado, office of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Court records show Friesen-Remple delivered a shipment of marijuana - hidden in a farm bulldozer - to a home in Shelby, North Carolina. DEA agents tapped his phone and learned he was getting directions from someone in Mexico.

The next month, a fellow member of the drug ring, who became a cooperating witness, told agents Friesen-Remple delivered the 1,575 pounds (714 kilograms) of pot that agents found during a search of his home, according to court records.

Friesen-Remple was arrested on Aug. 20, 2013, in the Santa Testa Point of Entry in New Mexico. He pleaded guilty to using a telephone to facilitate the distribution of marijuana.

During sentencing, U.S. District Judge Philip Brimmer noted his lack of criminal history and limited role in drug distribution.

The Mennonite community in Chihuahua dates to the 1920s, when thousands of Mennonites moved from Canada to northern Mexico to preserve a way of life rooted in farming and objection to military service. They continue to farm and ranch in isolated communities.

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