Arizona authorities have arrested some 200 people, and seized $7.8 million in cash and more than 1,200 pounds of drugs following an investigation they say has dismantled an "extensive" drug trafficking cell tied to the powerful Sinaloa cartel, federal and state authorities announced Tuesday.
Authorities announcing the 15-month-long investigation said that although the Sinaloa cartel almost immediately regenerates after one of its cells have been taken down, their investigation certainly struck a blow.
"Arresting a drug dealer is one thing but if we can actually follow that backwards and take out the head of the snake of this organization, we exact a lot of pain on those cartels and those folks putting their distribution networks in Arizona," Tempe police Cmdr. Kim Hale said at a news conference announcing the bust.
The 203 people arrested ranged all the way from street dealers and buyers to family members and friends of Sinaloa cartel members who were well-trusted in the organization, Hale said.
The 43 search warrants conducted as part of the investigation led to the seizure of 44 guns that included assault rifles, 650 pounds of marijuana, 435 pounds of methamphetamine, 123 pounds of cocaine and 4.5 pounds of heroin. Combined the drugs are estimated to be worth $12.5 million.
"It's significant enough that I'm sure they recognize it but they're not going to go belly up anytime soon," Hale said. "We can never rest."
The investigation began last year when a Tempe patrol officer pulled over a drug dealer after he saw a street deal. The dealer was later identified as a delivery driver for the drug ring and police said that he delivered methampetamine to various customers in the Phoenix metro area.
Further investigation led to more extensive undercover work and to local drug dealers throughout the metro area.
Separately, Phoenix agents with the Drug Enforcement Agency had been investigating the ring, so the two joined forces, along with other agencies.
Doug Coleman, acting special agent in charge of the DEA in Arizona, said that he expects further arrests in the case as the investigation continues.
"This is as big a case as gets put together," he said. "I often get asked, `OK, what have we done? Is the drug war over? You guys get up here all the time and make these claims about big cases.' So why do we keep doing this?"
He said that as long as tens of thousands of people die in the U.S. every year from drug overdoses, they will continue fighting the drug war. "We will never relent," he said.
He reiterated the strength of the Sinaloa cartel.
"The Sinaloa cartel _ that's the biggest and baddest of the drug cartels," he said. "The Sinaloa cartel is a transnational, multimillion industry that has tentacles in every state in the U.S. and throughout the world."
Authorities announced a similar bust of the Sinaloa cartel back in October, when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Pinal County Sheriff's Office said they dismantled a drug ring tied to the Sinaloa cartel that they estimated was responsible for smuggling more than $33 million worth of drugs through Arizona's western desert every month for distribution nationwide.
They also estimated that the ring was responsible for smuggling more than 3.3 million pounds of marijuana, 20,000 pounds of cocaine and 10,000 pounds of heroin into the U.S. through Arizona over the past five years. They arrested 22 suspected smugglers tied to the ring following their 17-month operation.
The same week, a drug cartel member deported as part of the bust returned to Arizona and was caught with $1.6 million worth of drugs in just one example of how relentless the Sinaloa cartel can be.