Out of the twelve arrested locally, one is a college professor who teaches finance.
According to the 13-count indictment, the defendants conspired with one another to possess with the intent to distribute synthetic drugs.
"These individuals are being charged in the manufacturing and distribution of what has become one of the most dangerous and emerging public health threats in the United States - synthetic drugs," said Kenneth Magidson, the US Attorney for the Southern District of Texas.
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More than nine and a half tons of synthetic drugs were seized in the operation, which spanned multiple years and involved several different agencies.
"Asking for return of $35 million in a money judgment which we believe demonstrates the significance of this criminal organization and the kind of money they were making based on the amount of drugs that were seized in addition to the money that was being seized, which was in the millions of dollars," said Magidson. The indictment also listed businesses, homes and cars the government is requesting in forfeiture from the defendants.
Both Magidson and DEA Special Agent in Charge Joseph Arabit stressed the dangers of synthetic drugs, which commonly can be called Kush and labeled with things like potpourri or "DEA Compliant."
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"These synthetic cannabinoids are nothing more than unregulated chemicals sprayed on plant material. It's poison," Arabit said.
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The drugs made in this operation were sold across the Houston area and elsewhere at gas stations, convenience stores, cell phone stores and even on the streets.
"They're placed in that cement mixer, they're mixed around and then they are packaged in small packages like this," Arabit said in response to how the chemicals are used to make the drugs. He says Ben Taub Hospital reports 15 overdoses a day. The drugs, which are marketed to kids, are causing children to become sick or even die.
Authorities would not connect any deaths directly to this operation.
A total of 16 people were charged. Two of those accused are turning themselves in and two more are believed to be out of the country. The names listed in the indictment were: Khader Fahed Tanous, Salem Fahed Tannous, Ziad Mahmoud Alsalameh, Muhammad Shariq Siddiqu, Ayisha Khurram, Sayed Ali, Omar Maher Al Nasser, Ali Tafesh, Hazim Hisham Qadus, Aqil Khader, Khalil Munier Khalil, Nagy Mahmoud Ali, Mohammed Rafat Taha, Steve Shafiq Amira, Abdalnour Izz and Frank Muratalla.
Omar Al Nasser is a professor with the University of Houston in Victoria, but he teaches classes in Sugar Land. He is facing several charges, including conspiracy to commit money laundering.
Feds: this is a critical issue of public health; say Ben Taub reports 15 admissions for overdoses per day pic.twitter.com/X9MXHMRK26— Lauren Lea (@LaurenLABC13) May 17, 2016
US Atty: 16 charged, 2 are self surrendering & 2 are fugitives. The $35million judgment is how much they believe conspiracy made in profit— Lauren Lea (@LaurenLABC13) May 17, 2016
Feds say chemicals are brought into country and then mixed in cement mixers. Synthetic cannabinoids are "poison" & marketed to kids— Lauren Lea (@LaurenLABC13) May 17, 2016
University of Houston-Victoria released the following statement to Eyewitness News:
"The University of Houston-Victoria takes this matter very seriously and will fully cooperate with law enforcement on all aspects of their investigation. As more information becomes available, UHV officials will consider action appropriate to the situation."