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June 25, 2014Albuquerque, NM, United StatesContraband

22 arrested in New Mexico for operating international car theft ring connected to Sinaloa drug cartel

‘Breaking Bad’-like theft ring stole luxury vehicles in exchange for meth

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Twenty-two people were arrested Thursday morning in the Albuquerque area and throughout New Mexico during the takedown of a major international auto theft and drug trafficking ring with ties to the Sinaloa drug cartel.

Those arrested face charges for their alleged roles in a large scale car theft scheme that shipped stolen luxury vehicles from New Mexico to Mexico in exchange for methamphetamine and heroin.

These arrests are the result of an extensive 10-month investigation, known as "Operation VIN-a-Palooza," which was conducted jointly by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), Albuquerque Police Department, Arizona Department of Public Safety’s (ADPS) Auto Theft Authority and the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

The investigation began when ADPS developed information about an organized scheme to steal luxury vehicles off car lots in Albuquerque. The ring, which was allegedly working for the Sinaloa drug cartel, is believed to have stolen hundreds of luxury cars - including Hummers – from car lots in Arizona, Utah, Oklahoma and New Mexico. The vehicles were allegedly illegally shipped to Mexico in exchange for drugs that were then trafficked throughout New Mexico.

During Thursday’s takedown, more than 300 law enforcement authorities executed 12 simultaneous state search warrants in New Mexico, resulting in 22 arrests. During the takedown, agents and officers seized seven firearms, including a sawed-off shotgun and a stolen weapon, as well as various amounts of methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine.

During the course of the investigation, authorities have recovered about 34 luxury vehicles with an estimated value of $2 million. The defendants face state charges that include racketeering, stolen vehicles and money laundering. The charges allege that the defendants stole luxury vehicles, provided them with new VIN numbers and then illegally exported them to Mexico.

The investigation continues; federal charges against some of the defendants may be forthcoming.

"Through good investigative police work, we've been able to dismantle a major car trafficking ring that was working for the violent Sinaloa cartel, exchanging luxury vehicles for meth," said Dennis Ulrich II, special agent in charge of HSI Albuquerque. "HSI is committed to de-glamorizing this “Breaking Bad”-style cycle of crime and violence, exposing the perpetrators and bringing them to justice.”

The following agencies assisted in Operation VIN-a-Palooza: U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Marshals Service, Federal Protective Service, New Mexico National Guard, New Mexico State Police, New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department, Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office, Valencia County Sheriff’s Office, the Rio Rancho (New Mexico) Police Department and the Los Lunas (New Mexico) Police Department.

The 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office in Bernalillo County is prosecuting the case.

Updated: 09/23/2014