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Millions of dollars in drugs seized, 70 arrested in Arizona, officials say

By Jim Barnett and Terry Frieden, CNN
October 31, 2011 -- Updated 2111 GMT (0511 HKT)
At least 70 suspected drug smugglers with alleged ties to the powerful Sinaloa cartel have been arrested in Arizona, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.
At least 70 suspected drug smugglers with alleged ties to the powerful Sinaloa cartel have been arrested in Arizona, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Group accused of smuggling more than $33 million worth of drugs a month through Arizona
  • Officials: Ring organized around cells in Arizona's Chandler, Stanfield, Maricopa communities
  • Weapons, plus thousands of pounds of marijuana, cocaine, heroin seized in raids
  • Suspected smugglers are thought to be tied to Mexico's Sinaloa cartel

Washington (CNN) -- At least 70 suspected drug smugglers with alleged ties to the powerful Sinaloa cartel have been arrested in Arizona, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.

The massive take-down of the drug trafficking network in Arizona included arrests of Mexican and U.S. suspects who allegedly smuggled more than 330 tons of illegal narcotics a year through Arizona.

More than 20 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies were involved in the 17-month multiagency investigation called Operation Pipeline Express. Speaking at a news conference Monday in Phoenix, law enforcement officials said the organization was responsible for smuggling more than $33 million worth of drugs a month.

"Today, we have dealt a significant blow to a Mexican criminal enterprise that has been responsible for poisoning our communities with the distribution of millions of dollars' worth of marijuana, cocaine and heroin," Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne said. "I find it completely unacceptable that Arizona neighborhoods are treated as a trading floor for narcotics."

Officials say the ring, organized around cells based in the Arizona communities of Chandler, Stanfield and Maricopa, used backpackers and vehicles to move loads of marijuana and other drugs from the Arizona-Mexico border to a network of "stash" houses in the Phoenix area. After arriving in Phoenix, the contraband was sold to distributors from multiple states nationwide.

Law enforcement officials seized thousands of pounds of marijuana, cocaine and heroin in a series of raids. They also seized more than 100 weapons, including multiple assault rifles and ammunition.

Authorities say the organization has been around for at least five years. According to a news release, officials say they "conservatively estimate the ring has smuggled more than 3.3 million pounds of marijuana, 20,000 pounds of cocaine and 10,000 pounds of heroin into to the United States, generating almost $2 billion in illicit proceeds."

The drugs were smuggled from Mexico across the border into Arizona by air and ground transportation using a variety of sophisticated techniques, the officials said.

"We in Arizona continue to stand and fight the Mexican drug cartels, who think they own the place," Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu said. "While this is a historic drug bust, sadly this represents only a fraction of what my deputies face every day."

The search continues for more suspects in the case. Arizona state officials will prosecute all of those arrested, authorities said.

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