11/2/11- A five-year Sinaloa cartel affiliated drug smuggling ring was broken up on Monday, leading to the arrest of 76 suspects. The 17-month investigation called “Operation Pipeline Express” was conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Arizona’s Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, and in collaboration with other law enforcement agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
Arizona officials announced in the ring’s five-year existence, it generated over $2 billion in profits by smuggling 3,000,000 pounds of marijuana, 20,000 pounds of cocaine and 10,000 pounds of heroin into the United States through a southwestern Arizona route. According to DHS and ICE, during late September and October of this year, busts in “Operation Pipeline Express” seized over 61,000 pounds of marijuana, 160 pounds of heroin, 210 pounds of cocaine, $760,000 in cash, and 108 weapons, including assault rifles.
The New York Times reported that half of those arrested on October 31 were U.S. citizens involved in the drug ring. Arizona Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu stated the “Operation Pipeline Express” investigation began in June 2010, after a routine traffic stop turned up an informant who told authorities of the ring, sparking the 17-month investigation.
One of the suspects arrested was deported two weeks ago to Mexico during a smaller bust, and was found Monday back in the United States with $1.6 million worth of drugs on his person. Sheriff Babeu stated that even though law enforcement does capture smugglers, “they’re still operating in a robust fashion… They can regenerate immediately.” This drug smuggling ring’s dependence on individual small time carriers using backpacks and vehicles is particularly troubling, since small influxes of drugs across the border are difficult to trace.
Law enforcement is wary of the success of this bust, citing the porous border and the lack of “higher up” arrests in the sting operation as evidence that the strength and fluid demand for drugs will just make cartel efforts change locations.
Fox News reported that Sinaloa cartel branch in Arizona brought in $33 million worth of drugs through Arizona every month to be distributed across the United States. Law enforcement officials in Arizona are not letting the scope and size of the drug smuggling operations phase them. Sheriff Babeu concluded a press conference on the issue stating, “This is America and we shall bring a crushing hand of enforcement against those who threaten our families and our national security… We in Arizona continue to stand and fight the Mexican drug cartels, who think they own the place”.