Arizona dismantles major drug network with Mexico

PHOENIX Mon Oct 31, 2011 7:55pm EDT

1 of 2. Guns and bundles of marijuana seized from the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel during 'Operation Pipeline Express' are displayed at a news conference in Phoenix, Arizona, October 31, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Joshua Lott

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PHOENIX (Reuters) - U.S. authorities have arrested more than 70 people in a series of Arizona narcotics raids, dismantling a major smuggling network linked to a Mexican drug cartel that generated nearly $2 billion in illicit proceeds, officials said on Monday.

The law enforcement effort, which included three sweeps conducted jointly by local, state and federal authorities, capped a 17-month investigation dubbed "Operation Pipeline Express."

The bust, ranked as one of the largest ever in Arizona, was announced at a news conference in Phoenix by officials of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Arizona Attorney General's Office and the Pinal County Sheriff's Department.

A total of 76 suspects -- a mix of U.S. and Mexican nationals -- were arrested in raids carried out last week, earlier this month and in mid-September throughout southern and central Arizona, officials said.

Those rounded up ranged from organizational "bosses" to stash house guards, scouts and drivers, they said.

To date, the case has resulted in the seizure of over 60,000 pounds of marijuana, more than 200 pounds of cocaine and about 160 pounds of heroin, along with $750,000 in cash and more than 100 weapons.

Intelligence gathered as part of probe found the drug-smuggling ring operated as a major U.S. hub for Mexico's notorious Sinaloa cartel during at least the past five years, authorities said.

During that time, the network is estimated to have smuggled more than 3.3 million pounds of marijuana, 20,000 pounds of cocaine and 10,000 pounds of heroin into the United States, generating illicit proceeds of nearly $2 billion.

Authorities said the network richly profited by gaining a virtual monopoly over smuggling routes along an 80-mile stretch of Arizona's southwestern desert.

Operating from cells based in the Arizona cities of Chandler, Stanfield and Maricopa, the smugglers ferried narcotics by foot and vehicle from the border to a network of "stash" houses in the Phoenix area, where the drugs were then sold to distributors from other states.

"We have dealt a significant blow to a Mexican criminal enterprise that has been responsible for poisoning our communities," Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne said. "I find it completely unacceptable that Arizona neighborhoods are treated as a trading floor for narcotics."

The cartel is headquartered in the northwestern Mexican state of Sinaloa on the Pacific coast, an area home to big marijuana and opium poppy plantations and considered the cradle of Mexican narcotics trafficking since the 1960s.

The cartel is believed to handle 65 percent of all drugs illegally transported to the United States, drug experts say.

Tens of thousands of people have been killed in drug-related violence since Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched his military campaign against the cartels after he took office in late 2006.

(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Jerry Norton and Cynthia Johnston)

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