PHOENIX — Federal, state and local authorities announced the results Monday of "Operation Pipeline Express," a 17-month multi-agency investigation responsible for dismantling a massive narcotics trafficking organization suspected of smuggling more than $33 million dollars' worth of drugs a month through Arizona's western desert.
At a news conference Monday, top-level representatives for the agencies overseeing the investigation, including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the Pinal County Sheriff's Office, and the Arizona Attorney General's Office, laid out details of the case.
"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," said Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne. "I find it completely unacceptable that Arizona neighborhoods are treated as a trading floor for narcotics. This case is the result of an outstanding partnership between federal and county law enforcement authorities and the Arizona Attorney General's office, which will handle the prosecution. These partnerships are essential to making sure these criminals experience the full force of the justice system."
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, which also included cocaine and heroin, was sold to distributors from multiple states nationwide.
Monday's announcement comes just four days after federal and local investigators executed the third in a succession of large-scale enforcement actions tied to the probe, taking another 22 defendants into custody. To date, 76 individuals have been criminally arrested in connection with "Operation Pipeline Express," ranging from organizational "bosses" to stash house guards and load drivers.
During last week's warranted searches, authorities seized more than two tons of marijuana, 19 weapons – including assault rifles, handguns, and shotguns – and nearly $200,000 in cash.
"Through our joint efforts, we've sent a resounding message to the Mexican cartels that Arizona is off limits to their operatives," said Matthew Allen, special agent in charge for ICE HSI in Arizona. "As this case makes clear, law enforcement in Arizona is united in its resolve to protect our communities and our country from the scourge of large-scale narcotics trafficking. We stand ready to use every tool and resource at our disposal to attack and dismantle these organizations."
Prior to last week's takedown, authorities had conducted two other major enforcement actions in connection with "Operation Pipeline Express." Earlier this month, agents executed a dozen search warrants throughout central and southern Arizona, including in the communities of Casa Grande and Stanfield, taking custody of 17 primary case targets. In mid-September, the initial enforcement action in the investigation resulted in the arrest of six suspects on state drug and conspiracy charges.
"We in Arizona continue to stand and fight the Mexican drug cartels, who think they own the place," said Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu. "This is America and we shall bring a crushing hand of enforcement against those who threaten our families and our national security. While this is a historic drug bust, sadly this represents only a fraction of what my deputies face every day."
Intelligence gathered as part of "Operation Pipeline Express" indicates the organization is tied to Mexico's Sinaloan cartel and has been in existence for at least the last five years. During that timeframe, authorities 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.
Authorities believe the organization has produced such huge profits by gaining a virtual monopoly over the smuggling routes along an 80-mile section of Arizona's international border, from Yuma to just east of the community of Sells.
The probe that evolved into "Operation Pipeline Express" began in May 2010 following a traffic stop by Pinal County Sheriff's deputies in Stanfield. To date, the case has resulted in the seizure of more than 60,000 pounds of marijuana; in excess of 200 pounds of cocaine; approximately 160 pounds of heroin; more than $750,000 in cash; and nearly 110 weapons, including multiple assault rifles.
In addition to the three lead agencies, more than 20 federal, state and local law enforcement organizations provided support for this investigation. They include:Â U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), both Border Patrol and CBP Air and Marine; the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA); the U.S. Attorney's Office; the U.S. Marshals Service; the Arizona Department of Public Safety; the sheriff's offices in Pima and Maricopa counties; and the police departments of Ak-Chin, Casa Grande, Chandler, Coolidge, El Mirage, Eloy, Florence, Gila River, Glendale, Goodyear, Marana, Maricopa, Phoenix, and Young Town.
At Monday's news conference, officials stressed the drug-trafficking investigation is ongoing and U.S.-based authorities continue to coordinate closely with their Mexican law enforcement counterparts, as well as with the ICE HSI and DEA attaché offices in Mexico, to pursue additional leads and suspects. Much of the cost associated with the investigation is being funded by two federal anti-drug initiatives, the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program and the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces (OCDETF). Additionally, HSI's Arizona-based Border Enforcement Security Task Force (BEST) played a central role in the case.