Arizona authorities have disrupted a Mexican drug cartel's distribution network, arresting dozens of smugglers in dismantling a ring responsible for carrying more than $33 million worth of drugs through the state's western desert every month, officials said Monday.
The ring is believed be tied to the Sinaloa cartel -- Mexico's most powerful -- and responsible for smuggling more than 3.3 million pounds of marijuana, 20,000 pounds of cocaine and 10,000 pounds of heroin into the U.S. through Arizona over the past five years, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Their efforts in that time generated an estimated $2 billion, according to ICE.
ICE's Homeland Security Investigations and the Pinal County Sheriff's Office arrested 22 suspected smugglers tied to the ring on Thursday, the latest of three busts they say have brought it down following a 17-month investigation dubbed "Operation Pipeline Express."
In the three busts combined, the agencies have arrested 76 suspected smugglers and seized more than 61,000 pounds of pot, about 160 pounds of heroin, about 210 pounds of cocaine, nearly $760,000 in cash, and 108 weapons, including assault rifles and shotguns. The other busts came in mid-September and mid-October.
Although the agencies released some information about Thursday's bust last week, they held back most of their information for a Monday news conference in which they displayed dozens of guns and hundreds of pounds of pot seized for members of the media.
The smuggling ring operated by using backpackers and vehicles to move drugs from the border to a network of so-called stash houses in the Phoenix area. The drugs were then sold to distributors from states across the country.
Authorities say the ring virtually monopolized smuggling routes along an 80-mile section of the Arizona-Mexico border from Yuma to just east of the small Tohono O'odham Nation town of Sells.
Some of the officials at the news conference in Phoenix lauded the bust as a significant blow to the Sinaloa cartel, while others acknowledged that it affects only a portion of the cartel's massive operation, which still has cells operating in the state.
"It's a body blow but it doesn't knock them out by any sense of the imagination," Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeau said. "This literally is just a fraction of what's going on."
It's only a matter of time before either the Sinaloa cartel or another operation reclaims the area affected by the bust, said Matthew Allen, ICE's special agent in charge for Arizona.
"This is not a closing chapter in this book," he said. "We have every expectation that command and control in Mexico is working to re-establish their presence, and it's our job to go after them."
Authorities began investigating the smuggling ring in June 2010, when a Pinal County sheriff's deputy stopped two smugglers hauling 1,500 pounds of pot in Stanfield, about 50 miles south of Phoenix. At least one of the smugglers gave investigators detailed information about the ring.
Allen said that those arrested range from low-level drug haulers and scouts to those who were in command.
"This is how you attack international organized crime and transnational criminal organizations, by focusing on the people, the leadership and the illicit pathways that they exploit," he said. "Our goal is to take them out by their roots."
The case is a reminder of how important it is for the federal government to gain operational control over the border, Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne said.
"I find it completely unacceptable that Arizona neighborhoods are treated as a trading floor for narcotics," Horne said. "Children are not safe when their homes are located near the other homes that are used as distribution centers for drugs. Our highways are not safe when criminal organizations battle each other, sometimes violently and at risk to innocent bystanders, for control of loads of drugs being transported in vehicles."
Authorities need to send a message to cartel leaders through continued busts, Babeau said.
"We have to stand up to bring the fight to the cartels to say, `This is America. You're not bringing your violence, you're not bringing your drugs and your trash to our country. We're going to stop you,"' he said.