Monday, October 31, 2011

Multi-agency probe deals death blow to ‘billion dollar’ drug ring Suspects allegedly smuggled more than 330 tons of illegal narcotics a year through Arizona

News Release
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE          ICE Public Affairs:  (202) 732-4213
MONDAY, OCT. 31, 2011                    Arizona Attorney General’s Office: (602) 542-8019 

              Pinal County Sheriff’s Dept.: (520) 858-4553


Suspects allegedly smuggled more than 330 tons of illegal narcotics a year through Arizona
PHOENIX – Federal, state and local authorities announced the results Monday of “Operation
Pipeline Express,” a 17-month multi-agency investigation responsible fMulti-agency probe deals death blow to ‘billion dollar’ drug ring or dismantling a massive
narcotics trafficking organization suspected of smuggling more than $33 million dollars’ worth
of drugs a month through Arizona’s western desert.

At a news conference Monday, top-level representatives for the agencies overseeing the
investigation, including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security
Investigations (HSI), the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, and the Arizona Attorney General’s
Office, laid out details of the case.

“Today we have dealt a significant blow to a Mexican criminal enterprise that has been
responsible for poisoning our communities with the distribution of millions of dollars’ worth of
marijuana, cocaine and heroin,” said Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne. “I find it completely
unacceptable that Arizona neighborhoods are treated as a trading floor for narcotics. This case is
the result of an outstanding partnership between federal and county law enforcement authorities
and the Arizona Attorney General’s office, which will handle the prosecution. These partnerships
are essential to making sure these criminals experience the full force of the justice system.”

Officials say the ring, organized around cells based in the Arizona communities of Chandler,
Stanfield and Maricopa, used backpackers and vehicles to move loads of marijuana and other
drugs from the Arizona-Mexico border to a network of “stash” houses in the Phoenix area. After
arriving in Phoenix, the contraband, which also included cocaine and heroin, was sold to
distributors from multiple states nationwide. 

Monday’s announcement comes just four days after federal and local investigators executed the
third in a succession of large-scale enforcement actions tied to the probe, taking another 22
defendants into custody. To date, 76 individuals have been criminally arrested in connection with “Operation Pipeline Express,” ranging from organizational “bosses” to stash house guards and
load drivers. 

During last week’s warranted searches, authorities seized more than two tons of marijuana, 19
weapons - including assault rifles, handguns, and shotguns - and nearly $200,000 in cash. 
“Through our joint efforts, we’ve sent a resounding message to the Mexican cartels that Arizona
is off limits to their operatives,” said Matthew Allen, special agent in charge for HSI in Arizona.
“As this case makes clear, law enforcement in Arizona is united in its resolve to protect our
communities and our country from the scourge of large-scale narcotics trafficking. We stand
ready to use every tool and resource at our disposal to attack and dismantle these organizations.”

Prior to last week’s takedown, authorities had conducted two other major enforcement actions in
connection with “Operation Pipeline Express.” Earlier this month, agents executed a dozen
search warrants throughout central and southern Arizona, including in the communities of Casa
Grande and Stanfield, taking custody of 17 primary case targets. In mid-September, the initial
enforcement action in the investigation resulted in the arrest of six suspects on state drug and
conspiracy charges.

“We in Arizona continue to stand and fight the Mexican drug cartels, who think they own the
place,” said Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu. “This is America and we shall bring a crushing
hand of enforcement against those who threaten our families and our national security. While
this is a historic drug bust, sadly this represents only a fraction of what my deputies face every

Intelligence gathered as part of “Operation Pipeline Express” indicates the organization is tied to
Mexico’s Sinaloan cartel and has been in existence for at least the last five years. During that
timeframe, authorities conservatively estimate the ring has smuggled more than 3.3 million
pounds of marijuana, 20,000 pounds of cocaine and 10,000 pounds of heroin into to the United
States, generating almost $2 billion in illicit proceeds.

Authorities believe the organization has produced such huge profits by gaining a virtual
monopoly over the smuggling routes along an 80-mile section of Arizona’s international border,
from Yuma to just east of the community of Sells. 

The probe that evolved into “Operation Pipeline Express” began in May 2010 following a traffic
stop by Pinal County Sheriff’s deputies in Stanfield. To date, the case has resulted in the seizure
of more than 60,000 pounds of marijuana; in excess of 200 pounds of cocaine; approximately
160 pounds of heroin; more than $750,000 in cash; and nearly 110 weapons, including multiple
assault rifles.

In addition to the three lead agencies, more than 20 federal, state and local law enforcement
organizations provided support for this investigation. They include:  U.S. Customs and Border
Protection (CBP), both Border Patrol and CBP Air and Marine; the Drug Enforcement
Administration (DEA); the U.S. Attorney’s Office; the U.S. Marshals Service; the Arizona
Department of Public Safety; the sheriff’s offices in Pima and Maricopa counties; and the police departments of Ak-Chin, Casa Grande, Chandler, Coolidge, El Mirage, Eloy, Florence, Gila
River, Glendale, Goodyear, Marana, Maricopa, Phoenix, and Young Town.
At Monday’s news conference, officials stressed the drug-trafficking investigation is ongoing
and U.S.-based authorities are continuing to coordinate closely with their Mexican law
enforcement counterparts, as well as with the HSI and DEA Attaché offices in Mexico, to pursue
additional leads and suspects. Much of the cost associated with the investigation is being funded
by two federal anti-drug initiatives, the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program
and the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces (OCDETF). Additionally, HSI’s
Arizona-based Border Enforcement Security Task Force (BEST) played a central role in the