by Dennis Wagner - Oct. 31, 2011 12:43 PM
The Arizona Republic
A deputy's routine traffic stop last year helped authorities penetrate what they say is one of the biggest smuggling operations ever identified in Arizona, a network that allegedly has moved $2 billion of narcotics across the border in just five years.
At a news conference Monday, investigators announced the seizure of more than 30 tons of marijuana and arrests of 76 people who are suspected of affiliation with Mexico's notorious Sinaloa Cartel.
Matt Allen, special agent in charge for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Arizona, said the criminal network is "one of the most prolific drug smuggling organizations ever uncovered in the state."
"This is a historic drug bust," added Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu. "...We have to stand up and bring the fight to the cartels and say, 'This is America. You're not coming here.'"
Babeu said the investigation, known as Operation Pipeline Express, began in June 2010 when one of his deputies pulled over a vehicle near Stanfield that was loaded with 1,500 pounds of marijuana. Intelligence gathered during that stop led to a massive criminal investigation involving about two dozen law enforcement agencies.
Allen said the group moved an estimated $33 million in marijuana, cocaine and heroin into the United States monthly. He said those arrested came from all levels of the organization - from drug-carrying mules to scouts and commanders who organized the trafficking.
Authorities said the ring, built around cells based in Chandler, Stanfield and Maricopa, used backpacker and vehicles to run narcotics across the border and through the Tohono O'odham Indian Reservation, a notorious smuggling route. Investigators seized 108 semi-automatic rifles and other weapons during the probe, which Babeu said was completed without an exchange of gunfire.
"We in Arizona continue to stand and fight against the Mexican drug cartels, who think they own this place," he said. "...While this is a historic drug bust, sadly, this represents only a fraction of what my deputies face every day."