Now, federal authorities say they have plugged a major pipeline for drugs headed to Chicago.
In June of last year, sheriff's deputies in a small town south of Phoenix, Ariz., pulled over a pickup truck for a routine violation. They found 1,500 pounds of marijuana inside, which led to an intelligence bonanza and Operation Pipeline Express -- a pipeline that fed marijuana, cocaine and heroin to Chicago and elsewhere with sales of $2 billion the past five years.
A series of coordinated raids by U.S. drug agents, backed up by state and local police, took place the past week in south central Arizona. When it was over, authorities had seized more than 30 tons of marijuana and arrested 76 people.
All of them are said to be connected to Mexico's notorious Sinaloa cartel, which is the organization that is responsible for a large share of the illegal drugs bought and sold in Chicago.
"The investigation is focused on dismantling one of the most prolific drug smuggling operations ever uncovered in this state. How prolific you may ask? Our investigation has revealed that the organization was smuggling more than $33 million of drugs a month into Arizona. And yes, that was per month," said Matthew Allen, Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
As authorities dismantled that key component of the Sinaloa cartel, Jesus Vicente Zambada-Niebla sits in Chicago's Metropolitan Correctional Center. Zambada-Niebla is the underboss of the Sinoloa drug cartel. He was extradited from Mexico and is to go on trial early next year on charges that he was the cartel's operation's boss, overseeing its supply chain to Chicago.
For 18 months, Chicago authorities have kept him in solitary confinement, not even allowing him onto the roof for exercise, fearing as assassination attempt.
Authorities seized more than 100 automatic weapons during the takedowns in Arizona.
"This massive case represents the huge problem Arizona citizens must face because of the pervasive presence of Mexican criminal enterprises in Phoenix, Tucson and all of Arizona. These drugs not only destroy lives, but they create an environment of violent criminality that ensnares innocent victims," said Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne.
The local sheriff calls it a body blow to the Sinaloa cartel.
"There are countless people who have been murdered here and this is why we have to stand up and bring the fight to the cartels and say, 'This is America. You're not bringing your violence, you're not bringing your drugs and your trash to our country," said Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu.
Operation Pipeline Express may now be wrapped up in a neat, federal prosecution in Arizona; but, U.S. Drug Enforcement agents in Chicago said Monday that the underpinnings of the Sinoloa cartel are still in place and therefore still the subjects of several local investigations.Operation Pipeline Express
SOUTH CENTRAL ARIZONA
Drug pipeline from Mexico to Arizona, the Midwest and Northeast
Estimated monthly revenues: $33 million
Estimated five-year revenues: Nearly $2 billion
Pounds of marijuana seized: 61,575
Pounds of cocaine seized: 213
Pounds of heroin seized: 158
Cash seized: $758,908
Firearms seized: 108
Source: Federal, AZ law enforcement