In an operation involving federal and state law enforcement agencies, authorities arrested nearly two dozen people Thursday in New Mexico on charges related to a major international auto theft and drug trafficking ring with ties to the Sinaloa drug cartel.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, said in a statement that the suspects allegedly took part in a large-scale car theft scheme that sent luxury cars to Mexico from New Mexico and, in return, received methamphetamine and heroin.
The arrests stemmed from a 10-month investigation, known as "Operation VIN-a-Palooza," which was conducted by ICE, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), Albuquerque Police Department, Arizona Department of Public Safety’s (ADPS) Auto Theft Authority and the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
"Through good investigative police work, we've been able to dismantle a major car trafficking ring that was working for the violent Sinaloa cartel, exchanging luxury vehicles for meth," said Dennis Ulrich II, special agent in charge of HSI Albuquerque. "HSI is committed to de-glamorizing this “Breaking Bad”-style cycle of crime and violence, exposing the perpetrators and bringing them to justice.”
Authorities say they initially received a tip about thefts of luxury cars from lots in Albuquerque. The perpetrators, allegedly linked to the Sinaloa drug cartel, stole hundreds of cars from there as well as Arizona, Utah, and Oklahoma. The cars were shipped to Mexico, authorities say, in exchange for drugs. The drugs then were trafficked in New Mexico.
In the Thursday sweep, authorities seized seven firearms, including a sawed-off shotgun and a stolen weapon, as well as various amounts of methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine.
During the investigation, authorities also seized more than 30 luxury cars with an estimated value of $2 million.
Authorities say the investigation continues and there may be more charges against those arrested.
The 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office in Bernalillo County is prosecuting the case.