updated 5/11/2007 6:30:25 PM ET 2007-05-11T22:30:25

A Mexican doctor surgically removed drug traffickers' fingerprints, substituting skin from the soles of their feet, to help the traffickers avoid arrest, authorities said Friday.

The doctor, Jose L. Covarrubias, was arrested at the border as he tried to enter the U.S. on Wednesday, the same day he was indicted in connection with a marijuana-dealing ring based in Harrisburg.

The indictment says Covarrubias surgically removed the fingerprints of Marc George, a co-defendant named in the drug indictment. The doctor is believed to have performed the surgery for about four other people, Assistant U.S. Attorney William Behe said.

"We heard those stories, but we didn't believe them when we heard them during the course of the investigation," Behe said. "We caught Marc George and we all became believers."

Behe said George's hands are still mangled from the procedure, which authorities believe Covarrubias performed in mid-2005.

Covarrubias, 49, was charged with conspiring to distribute more than a ton of marijuana in central Pennsylvania and elsewhere, and with being an accomplice and accessory after the fact to marijuana dealing. He is a Mexican citizen but lives in both Nogales, Mexico, and Nogales, Ariz.

The charges are the result of an investigation into a Harrisburg-based drug ring for which 34 people have been charged and 27 have pleaded guilty or are expected to plead guilty.

George, 42, of Jamaica, was indicted on charges of money laundering and drug trafficking.

It could not immediately determined if Covarrubias has a lawyer. A telephone message for George's lawyer was not returned Friday.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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