ST. GEORGE (AP) - Agents with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration took down several key figures from the Mexico-based Sinaloa Cartel on Tuesday during the wrap-up of an 18-month investigation they say "decimated" a Utah-based cell of the violent transnational crime ring.
At least seven arrests took place Tuesday in the Salt Lake Valley and along Interstate 15 in or near Juab County as part of Operation Broken Glass, which has netted more than 30 arrests in Utah, California and Nevada over the course of the investigation.
"It was a great day," DEA Supervisory Special Agent Sue Thomas said. "We removed the cell head, who was the guy who was coordinating the shipments coming to Utah from Mexico and California."
Thomas said no drugs were found in the man's vehicle when he was stopped by the Utah Highway Patrol near Nephi.
"But we know he was associated with a load that was coming into town," she said. "He was traveling to Utah from Phoenix and had crossed the (U.S.-Mexico) border just a few days earlier."
Thomas said she did not have information on whether any of the suspects are in the country illegally.
"It takes ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) a little while to get their pedigree," she said.
Prosecutors were expected to begin seeking federal indictments against the suspects in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City during the next few weeks.
DEA agents aren't certain how long the cell had been operating, but Thomas said it was a well-coordinated operation that was deeply entrenched in the Salt Lake City area. The cell was handling large amounts of methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin, she said.
Most of the drugs were being moved into Utah in small packages by couriers."The traffic stop (in Juab County) is just a small part," Thomas said. "As the case progressed, we had the opportunity to take some drug traffickers out (of the operation) - just quietly. ... I-15 is a pipeline and ... we'll know that drug flows are coming into Salt Lake City. It is usually advantageous to our operation to not stop them in Salt Lake City."
The Sinaloa Cartel is one of seven major drug enterprises in Mexico that have been battling with each other and government officials since Mexico's president declared war on the cartels in late 2006.
Reports of beheadings and bodies dissolved in vats of acid became common after the outbreak of the "war," but in spite of government action on both sides of the border, the flow of drugs from Mexico into the United States has continued largely unimpeded.
The Sinaloa Cartel maintains a strong influence throughout northern Mexico and, while its leaders generally remain in Mexico, the globe-spanning organization's influence has been growing throughout the United States.
Thomas said the drugs allegedly involved in "Broken Glass" tend to cross the border in California and then travel to transportation hubs such as Las Vegas and Salt Lake City, where they can be sent out to other locations.
"A huge shipment can come into Salt Lake City, but only a small portion may make it back to Southern Utah," she said. "It can branch out all over the country."
Tuesday's arrests in the Salt Lake Valley included a raid on a home in South Jordan and a Mi Ranchito restaurant in South Salt Lake.
Authorities seized more than 30 pounds of methamphetamine, 200 pounds of marijuana, a kilogram each of heroin and cocaine, as well as guns and more than $322,000 in cash.
"We think that was a drop in bucket in terms of what they were moving," Thomas said.
A pound of methamphetamine is worth about $14,000 on the street, she said.
Authorities expect Tuesday's action to have an immediate impact on the availability of street drugs."All the drug task forces throughout the state ... recognize the cases we're working on are going to impact communities within the state," Thomas said. "They work hand in hand with us. ... We're very fortunate to have that partnership between local and federal (agencies)."
Source: The Associated Press