A 17-month multiagency investigation ended Monday with the arrest of more than 70 suspects in a drug trafficking ring accused of smuggling more than $33 million worth of narcotics through the Arizona desert every month, law enforcement authorities said.
Known as "Operation Pipeline Express," the undercover investigation targeted smugglers organized around cells based in several Arizona cities, who used backpackers and vehicles to move marijuana, heroin and cocaine from Mexico to a network of "stash" houses in the Phoenix area.
After arriving in Phoenix, the drugs were sold to distributors from multiple states nationwide, generating almost $2 billion in illicit proceeds over the past five years, authorities said.
"Today we have dealt a significant blow to a Mexican criminal enterprise that has been responsible for poisoning our communities with the distribution of millions of dollars' worth of marijuana, cocaine and heroin," said Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne. "I find it completely unacceptable that Arizona neighborhoods are treated as a trading floor for narcotics."
The investigation included agents and prosecutors from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Pinal County Sheriff's Office and the Arizona Attorney General's Office.
"We in Arizona continue to stand and fight the Mexican drug cartels, who think they own the place," said Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu. "This is America and we shall bring a crushing hand of enforcement against those who threaten our families and our national security.
"While this is a historic drug bust, sadly this represents only a fraction of what my deputies face every day," he said.
To date, 76 persons have been arrested in connection with Operation Pipeline Express, ranging from organizational "bosses" to stash-house guards and load drivers. During searches last week, authorities seized more than 2 tons of marijuana, 19 weapons — including assault rifles, handguns and shotguns — and nearly $200,000 in cash.
"Through our joint efforts, we've sent a resounding message to the Mexican cartels that Arizona is off-limits to their operatives," said Matthew Allen, ICE special agent in charge in Arizona. "As this case makes clear, law enforcement in Arizona is united in its resolve to protect our communities and our country from the scourge of large-scale narcotics trafficking."
Intelligence gathered as part of the undercover operation showed that the drug ring is tied to Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel and has been in existence for at least the past five years. During that time frame, authorities estimated that the drug-smuggling ring transported more than 3.3 million pounds of marijuana, 20,000 pounds of cocaine and 10,000 pounds of heroin into the United States.
In congressional testimony last month, the Drug Enforcement Administration described the Sinaloa Cartel as a "powerful consortium" of independent Mexican drug-trafficking organizations that operate as "an alliance to share resources for the common goal of trafficking multiton quantities of cocaine from South America into the United States."
The DEA said the Sinaloa Cartel, composed of many independent leaders, wields the "greatest influence in the western and southwestern regions of Mexico" but also maintains strongholds in Baja California, Sonora, the Yucatan Peninsula, portions of Chihuahua and within central Mexico. Of the Mexican drug-trafficking organizations, the DEA also said the Sinaloa Cartel has the broadest reach into Europe, Asia and Australia.
The initial investigation that evolved into Operation Pipeline Express began in May 2010 after a traffic stop by Pinal County Sheriff's deputies in Stanfield, Ariz. To date, the case has resulted in the seizure of more than 60,000 pounds of marijuana; in excess of 200 pounds of cocaine; approximately 160 pounds of heroin; more than $750,000 in cash; and nearly 110 weapons, including multiple assault rifles.
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