Drug smuggling ring busted: 25 arrested, 46 indicted
Federal and state authorities have arrested 25 of 46 members of a drug smuggling organization that moved marijuana across the Tohono O'odham Nation, they announced Thursday.
As of noon, 25 members of a drug and human smuggling ring led by Jesus Valencia Rodriguez had been arrrested, the culmination of an 18-month investigation by the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force run by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The arrests began Tuesday and continue "even as we speak," said Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne at a morning press conference.
Most of those indicted — 42 of 46 — are U.S. citizens, and 13 are Tohono O'odham tribal members, officials said.
The smuggling organization was a Mexico-based syndicate of the Caborca-based Paez-Soto cell of the powerful Sinaloa Cartel, said Doug Coleman, the DEA's acting special agent in charge for Arizona.
Smugglers moved marijuana through the San Miguel Gate on the Tohono O'odham Reservation, and by using ramps to get trucks over the vehicle barriers on the border.
Backpackers and a system of spotters located on high ground were also used to move the drugs, he said.
Authorities seized 10,000 pounds of marijuana during the investigation, and are aware of another 28,000 pounds smuggled by the group, Coleman said.
"What we know and what we can prove are obviously to two different things," he said. "We know they were moving significantly more than that."
150 drug seizures were linked to the smugglers during the investigation, Horne said. 41 assault weapons being shipped south of the border were seized, he said.
Horne and Coleman described the bust as a major blow to smugglers.
"This operation has effectively dismantled the Arizona-based transportation and distribution cells of the Jesus Valencia Rodriguez organization," Horne said.
Coleman couldn't say what the impact on the total amount of marijuana smuggled through Arizona would be.
"There are between 5 and a million" such smuggling operations, he said.
In 2010, more than 1 million pounds of marijuana was seized in the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector, the busiest smuggling route on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Horne took the opportunity to take a shot at the federal government.
"The (San Miguel) gate is little more than a cattle guard with no significant federal border law enforcment presence," Horne said.
"Drug trafficking organzations have taken advantage of this loose enforcement," he said.
Horne said that drug traffickers are growing more violent.
"There have been claims by the administration that the border is safer than it's ever been, and I testified before Congress last week that that's not the case," he said.
"We see ever more vicious and more violent activity on the border," Horne said.
The number of violent crimes reported in border areas has been decreasing over the past decade, FBI statistics show. The Border Patrol has said it keeps the San Miguel gate under constant monitoring.
Broad investigations are "the only way to attack these organizations," Coleman said, describing the actions as "an investigation that targeted from the lowest level player all the way to the command and control centers in Mexico."
"We don't focus on a specific seizure or a specific event, we focus on an organization," he said.
"Remember these traffickers are big businessman—big violent, nasty businessmen—but they are certainly businessmen. If we focus on a 5,000 marijuana seizure and make that the end of the case, we're not doing anything," Coleman said.
"If we take out an entire cell, then we are making a difference. This organization has to reconstitute itself now. It's not just one person being taken off, it's the entire cell."
"When they do, we'll be back to get them again," he said.