By Brad Poole
Police in Arizona have arrested 25 suspected members of a Mexican drug cartel, significantly hampering the group's ability to smuggle drugs and illegal immigrants from Mexico, authorities said on Thursday.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said the suspects -- believed to be members of the Jesus Valencia-Rodgriguez cell of the powerful Sinaloa cartel -- smuggled drugs and undocumented immigrants through the remote Tohono O'odham Indian Nation on the Arizona-Mexico border.
The suspects, who were arrested in Phoenix, Tucson and on the Tohono O'odham nation, face state charges including drug and human smuggling, money laundering, conspiracy and participation in a criminal syndicate. No federal charges were filed.
Arizona straddles a major trafficking corridor for smugglers hauling drugs and illegal immigrants into the United States from Mexico.
The sweep followed an 18-month investigation, said Doug Coleman, the DEA's special agent in charge for Arizona.
"This organization is going to have to reconstitute itself, and when they do we'll be ready," Coleman said.
Valencia-Rodriguez is believed to be at large in Mexico, and U.S. officials plan to ask Mexican authorities for help in capturing him. The cartel will require months or years to recover, Coleman said.
Most of the suspects are U.S. citizens and the rest Mexican, said Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne, who announced the arrests at a Tucson news conference.
The smuggling operation used sophisticated methods, including spotters hidden in the Arizona desert with solar-powered radios and night-vision equipment to alert smugglers when law enforcement was near, Horne said.
"This criminal enterprise was a well-organized operation that constantly worked against law-enforcement interdiction efforts," he said.
Valencia-Rodriguez is responsible for bringing illegal aliens and tons of marijuana across the border, often using a gate that allows tribe members to cross the border unrestricted, Horne said.
Authorities also seized more than 10,000 pounds of marijuana and shut down stash and safe houses in Tucson and Phoenix during the investigation. More arrests are expected, Horne said.
Coleman could not say how significant the arrests are for the cartel, because authorities do not know how many such cells exist.
"If I knew how many there were, I would arrest them," he said.