Federal, state and local authorities announced the results Monday of “Operation Pipeline Express,” a 17-month multi-agency investigation responsible for 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.
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.
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.