Arizona busts massive Mexican drug smuggling operation [video]
Arizona officials have arrested 76 people suspected in the smuggling of at least $2 billion worth of drugs through the state's western desert in coordination with Mexico's Sinaloa cartel.
“We in Arizona continue to stand and fight the Mexican drug cartels, who think they own the place,” Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu said in a statement about the investigation, dubbed Operation Pipeline Express.
“While this is a historic drug bust, sadly this represents only a fraction of what my deputies face every day,” Babeu said.
The arrests were made during a series of recent raids.
Officials said the ring, based in Chandler, Stanfield and Maricopa, used backpackers and trucks to move drugs from the border to a network of stash houses in the Phoenix area. After arriving in Phoenix, the smugglers sold the drugs, which included marijuana, cocaine and heroin, to distributors from various states.
Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the smugglers succeeded at first because they had established control over an 80-mile stretch of the border from Yuma to Sells, Ariz.
"They had gained a virtual monopoly over a swath of the Arizona border," she said.
Kice said investigators believe some of those arrested are U.S.-based bosses in the Sinaloa cartel.
“Through our joint efforts, we’ve sent a resounding message to the Mexican cartels that Arizona is off limits to their operatives,” Matthew Allen, special agent in charge of Homeland Security investigations in Arizona, said in a statement.
Officials posted video from the investigation online, including surveillance video of trucks being loaded and driven down desert roads, Border Patrol officers inspecting a roofing truck packed with large bricks of marijuana, and sheriff's teams making arrests during nighttime raids.
The 17-month investigation, which began with a traffic stop by Pinal County sheriff's deputies, included three “large-scale enforcement actions”: one last week, another earlier this month and a third last month, according to ICE.
During last week's raids, authorities seized more than 2 tons of marijuana, 19 weapons and nearly $200,000 in cash, the agency said. It estimates that the drug ring smuggled more than 3.3 million pounds of marijuana, 20,000 pounds of cocaine and 10,000 pounds of heroin into the United States during the last five years.
-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Houston
Video: Authorities say a joint investigation by Arizona and federal officials, dubbed Operation Pipeline Express, resulted in several recent raids against a well-established drug ring associated with Mexico's Sinaloa cartel. Credit: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement