Multi-agency sting strikes Sinaloa drug cartel
Federal, state and local agencies shut down smuggling ring in Az
PHOENIX — A 17-month operation has shut down a smuggling ring, connected to Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel, that moved more than $33 million worth of drugs each month through Arizona, officials announced Monday.
The smugglers were embedded for several years in Stanfield, Maricopa and Chandler, moving mostly marijuana to Phoenix for distribution, the officials said at a news conference. The ring transported the drugs, which also included cocaine and heroin, on foot and in vehicles, they said.
“Through the combined efforts … this billion dollar drug ring is no longer operating with impunity in our communities,” said Matthew Allen, special agent in charge for Homeland Security Investigations in Arizona.
Agents from county, state, local and federal organizations arrested 76 individuals allegedly involved in the ring who will now face charges in the state. They seized contraband including more than 60,000 pounds of marijuana, 108 weapons and more than $750,000 in cash.
That scope was more than agencies originally anticipated, so collaboration became the key to success, Allen said.
“As we got more insight into just how large the organization was and how much they were moving on a daily, weekly and monthly basis, we started to recognize that we had underestimated them,” Allen said.
Allen declined to discuss whether any of the weapons seized are linked to Operation Fast and Furious, a controversial effort by the Phoenix field office of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to distribute and then track illegal weapons.
Allen said any connection would be coincidental.
“No part of our investigation was predicated on Fast and Furious,” Allen said.
Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu said while this was a historic bust, there is much more work to be done.
“This literally is a fraction of what is going on,” he said.
Babeu said efforts to eradicate the drug trade in Arizona must be combined with those in Mexico, since the cartels are wreaking havoc on both sides of the border.
“This where Mexico is our friend, is our ally,” Babeu said.
Attorney General Tom Horne said his office has already prosecuted seven members of the smuggling ring, and six have received prison sentences. He said the remaining suspects will be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.
“I find it completely unacceptable that Arizona neighborhoods are treated as trading floors for narcotics,” Horne said.
However, Carlos Vélez-Ibáñez, director of Arizona State University’s School of Transborder Studies, said this operation’s damage to the smuggling ring is nothing more than a poke in the side of the Sinaloa cartel, which he said is the “grandfather” of all cartels responsible for turning drugs into a business. He said the drugs and people law enforcement agencies took out of play will be replaced quickly.
“There’s a never-ending source of volunteers to participate in these activities,” Vélez-Ibáñez said. “It’s lucrative.”