FLORENCE, Ariz. – A drug cartel member who was deported to Mexico as part of a major smuggling bust announced this week in Arizona has already returned to the U.S. and been caught with $1.6 million worth of drugs -- yet another example of how relentless and seemingly unstoppable Mexican cartels can be, officials said Tuesday.
Francisco Guillermo Morales Esquer, 36, was arrested Oct. 13 in one of three major busts that state and federal officials credited with dismantling the smuggling ring, which is believed to be tied to the Sinaloa cartel -- Mexico's most powerful.
The busts were announced Monday at a Phoenix news conference in which officials displayed hundreds of pounds of drugs and dozens of guns they had seized.
Morales' arrest came about five hours later when a deputy clocked him driving at 50 mph in a 15 mph school zone in Stanfield, about 50 miles south of Phoenix. A chase ensued at speeds of up to 100 mph during which officials said Morales tried to hit a deputy who was putting down stop sticks.
The 3-mile chase ended in the desert after Morales crashed his car and jumped into an irrigation canal. After he was arrested, deputies found 80 pounds of white- and black-tar heroin and eight pounds of methamphetamine in the car.
Morales was booked on charges of drug smuggling, possession of drug paraphernalia, felony flight and aggravated assault. It's unclear whether he had an attorney.
Catching Morales two weeks after he was arrested as part of the department's larger bust involving the Sinaloa cartel was the height of irony, Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu said at a Tuesday news conference.
"Here we strike a body blow on the Sinaloa cartel, (and) they're still operating in a robust fashion," he said. "They can regenerate immediately."
Although Morales was found in a home tied to the cartel during the Oct. 13 bust, he wasn't identified as a main target of the investigation and prosecutors didn't have enough to convict him, Babeu said. Guns were found in that home, but not drugs.
Although Babeu acknowledged that his agency was involved in the decision to turn over Morales to the Border Patrol, he said it was the federal government's responsibility to prosecute him for felony re-entry into the U.S. because he had been deported at least once before. The fact that he wasn't prosecuted shows that the law isn't being enforced, he said.
"There's no consequences," he said.
Officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol didn't immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
The long-term investigation of the Sinaloa cartel's Arizona offshoot began in June 2010 after a traffic stop in Stanfield turned up 1,500 pounds of pot and a suspected smuggler began giving authorities information.
In three busts in September and October, ICE'S Homeland Security Investigations and the Pinal County Sheriff's Office arrested a total of 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 busts dismantled the ring, which they said was responsible for bringing more than $33 million worth of drugs through the state's western desert every month for distribution nationwide, authorities said.
They believed the ring was in operation for at least five years and netted profits of $2.2 billion in that time.