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Arizona authorities say 'massive' drug smuggling ring that brought in billions dismantled
PHOENIX (AP) ' Arizona authorities have dismantled a "massive" drug trafficking ring responsible for smuggling more than $33 million worth of drugs through the state's western desert each month in recent years, officials said Monday.
The ring is believed be tied to the Sinaloa cartel ' Mexico's most powerful ' and its members smuggled 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, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
ICE and the Pinal County Sheriff's Office arrested 22 suspected smugglers tied to the ring on Thursday, the latest of three busts they say have brought it down following a 17-month investigation dubbed "Operation Pipeline Express."
In the three busts combined, the agencies have arrested 76 suspected smugglers and seized more than 61,000 pounds of pot, about 160 pounds of heroin, about 210 pounds of cocaine, nearly 760,000 in cash, and 108 weapons, including assault rifles and shotguns.
Although the agencies released some information about Thursday's bust last week, they held back most of their information for a Monday news conference in which they displayed dozens of guns and hundreds of pounds of pot seized for members of the media.
The smuggling ring operated by using backpackers and vehicles to move drugs from the border to a network of so-called stash houses in the Phoenix area. The drugs were then sold to distributors from states across the country.
Authorities say the ring virtually monopolized smuggling routes along an 80-mile section of the Arizona-Mexico border from Yuma to just east of the small Tohono O'odham Nation town of Sells.
Some of the officials at the news conference in Phoenix lauded the bust as a significant blow to the Sinaloa cartel, while others acknowledged that it affects only a portion of the cartel's massive operation, which still has cells operating in the state.
"It's a body blow but it doesn't knock them out by any sense of the imagination," Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeau said.
Matthew Allen, ICE's special agent in charge for Arizona, said it's only a matter of time before either the Sinaloa cartel or another operation reclaims the area affected by the bust.
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