Major drug-smuggling operation broken up in Arizona

by JJ Hensley - Dec. 23, 2008 01:28 PM

A broad coalition of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies combined forces to take down one of the largest drug operations in Arizona, authorities announced Tuesday.

The investigation into the Garibaldi-Lopez Drug Trafficking Organization began almost a year ago, as officers from Phoenix Police, deputies in the Pinal County Sheriff's Office and agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Border patrol, among others, began to realize the drug busts they were making might be linked.

By the time 60 indictments related to the organization were handed out on Monday - resulting in 39 arrests - authorities said they had seized more than 25,000 pounds of marijuana, one kilogram of cocaine, 11 pounds of methamphetamine and more than $750,000 in cash, in addition to dozens of cars, firearms and stolen vehicles.

The organization was a complex transportation operation that brought thousands of tons of marijuana into the Valley each month with the intent of re-distributing the drugs around the country.

After authorities learned of the group's activity, most of the shipments never left the Valley, said Phoenix Police Lt. Vince Piano.

Authorities believe the group is linked to the notorious Sinaloa Cartel of Mexico, and that the U.S.-based group sold marijuana to finance Sinaloa operations, said Matthew Allen, a special agent in charge with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"Every time they lose cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin (in drug busts), they make up for those losses by selling marijuana in the United States," Allen said.

The sophisticated drug-running ring also installed radio communication towers in the desert, employed lookouts all along the route from Mexico to Phoenix and even employed trucks with ramps built on top that allow cars to hop the border fence south of Arizona.

The group loaded up stolen cars in Mexico prepared to cross through the desert, including the Tohono O'odham Nation, before arriving at a safe are in Pinal County. Another vehicle would unload the drugs there and transport them to a safe house in Phoenix, authorities said.

It took the combined intelligence and resources of all the agencies involved to take down the sprawling drug ring, said Pinal County Sheriff Chris Vasquez, whose jurisdiction encompasses a common smuggling route.

"With the resources we have, we would make a small - not even a dent - in the amount of drugs coming up through that corridor," Vasquez said. ... 23-ON.html