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U.S. Dismantles AZ Drug Ring With Ties to Cartel

An Arizona-based drug-smuggling operation that generated $2 billion over five years and had ties to a Mexican drug cartel was dismantled by authorities who arrested 76 suspects.

The drug ring is connected to the Sinaloa cartel and is suspected of transporting more than $33 million a month in marijuana, cocaine and heroin from Mexico through Arizona’s western desert, according to a statement released today by local, state and federal authorities.

Law enforcement officials conducted three raids on the drug ring during a 17-month investigation called Operation Pipeline Express, the statement said. They seized thousands of pounds of drugs as well as assault rifles, handguns and shotguns, according to the statement.

“Today we have dealt a significant blow to a Mexican criminal enterprise that has been responsible for poisoning our communities,” Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne said in the statement.

The Arizona drug ring had a “virtual monopoly” on smuggling along an 80-mile section of the border, the statement said.

Half those arrested were U.S. citizens, said Amy Rezzonico, a spokeswoman for Horne. The other half were illegal immigrants, mostly from Mexico. All were arrested in the U.S., she said.

Republican Criticism

Republicans have said the Obama administration isn’t doing enough to clamp down on drug-cartel-related violence along the U.S.-Mexico border. They ratcheted up their criticism after reports that federal authorities ran a program, Fast and Furious, that allowed illegal gun purchases in the U.S. in an effort to link weapons to Mexican cartels.

The Arizona operation included U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Pinal County, Arizona, Sheriff’s Office and other law enforcement agencies.

Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, declined to comment on whether any of the weapons seized in Operation Pipeline Express originated with Fast and Furious.

The smugglers in the Arizona drug ring used backpackers and vehicles to ferry drugs from the Arizona-Mexico border to “stash” houses in the Phoenix area, the statement said. The drugs were then sold to distributors nationwide.

Authorities said they confiscated 60,000 pounds of marijuana, more than 200 pounds of cocaine, 160 pounds of heroin, more than $750,000 in cash and about 110 weapons.

In the third raid alone, conducted last week, law enforcement seized 19 weapons, two tons of marijuana, including assault rifles, shotguns and handguns and about $200,000 in cash.

Charges against those arrested in the Arizona operation included illegally conducting an enterprise, and transportation and possession of marijuana.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jeff Bliss in Washington at jbliss@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net

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