Drug Cartel Operations

By partnering with local, state, and federal agencies, this office investigates and prosecutes drug cartels. Below are significant examples:


Mexican Sinaloa Cartel

Arrested 21 suspected members of a drug trafficking organization working on behalf of the Mexican sinaloa cartel. This operation effectively dismantled the organization that monopolized drug smuggling through the Tohono O’dham reservation on the border between Arizona and Mexico.

Cocaine Trafficking

Arrested 17 members of a large scale cocaine trafficking organization which had smuggled into the United States between 25 and 33 million dollars worth of cocaine. The operation dismantled a sophisticated and large scale cocaine smuggling enterprise which smuggled 35 kilograms of cocaine per day, 3 times per week, hidden in vehicles that entered through Nogales, Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays, like clockwork. That operation is dismantled.

Operation Pipeline Express

Completed “Operation Pipeline Express,” which involved the arrest of 76 individuals who smuggled more than 330 tons of illegal narcotics a year through Arizona’s western desert, generating almost 2 billion dollars in elicit proceeds. It had produced such huge profits by having a virtual monopoly of smuggling drugs over an 80 mile section of Arizona’s border with Mexico, from Yuma to Sells. It has been shut down. 

Operation Crank Call

Arrested 217 people in connection with “Operation Crank Call,” which dismantled another operation linked to the Sinaloa Cartel. 12 million dollars in illegal drugs and 7.8 million dollars in case were seized. 

Operation Crystal Lake

In Operation Crystal Lake, dismantled a large scale, sophisticated drug trafficking organization that was operating in the Phoenix metropolitan area. The drug trafficking organization was receiving hundreds of pounds of methamphetamine and cocaine from sources in Mexico and then distributing the drugs throughout Phoenix and beyond. During the course of the investigation, law enforcement agents seized 125 pounds of methamphetamine, 90 pounds of cocaine, hundreds of pounds of marijuana and hash and numerous firearms.

Operation Sledgehammer

In Operation Sledgehammer Express, indicted members of the Guillermo Salazar Drug Trafficking Organization (DTO). This Organization picked up hundreds of pounds marijuana from backpackers in the desert and delivered the marijuana to various stash houses in Phoenix. Law enforcement agents seized 2,600 pounds of marijuana, approximately a quarter pound of methamphetamine and several guns. Fifteen members of this DTO were indicted for their involvement. 

Operation Con-Air Two

Indicted members of the Cardenas-Ramirez DTO known as Operation Con-Air Two. This Organization was involved in the brokering of hundreds of pounds of marijuana and significant quantities of heroin between Mexico-based drug traffickers and groups located throughout the United States. Law enforcement agents seized approximately 1,000 pounds of marijuana, more than a kilogram of heroin, more than $75,000 and several guns. 

Operation Chino Express

In Operation Chino Express, indicted members of the Avitia-Patron Organization. The Organization’s focus was to receive hundreds of pounds marijuana from Mexico-based drug traffickers and then forward the marijuana in commercial trucks to organizations in California. Agents identified the five individuals who were delivering and coordinating the shipment of the marijuana and it led to the seizure of hundreds of pounds of marijuana and the commercial trucks and trailers used by the Organization.

Operation Northern Lights

In Operation Northern Lights, indicted members of an Organization that had trafficked nearly 400 pounds of methamphetamine and received approximately $3 million of illegal drug proceeds in the eight months preceding the investigation. During the course of the investigation, agents seized approximately 40 pounds of methamphetamine and over 15 pounds of heroin.

Operation Solidarity

In Operation Solidarity, arrested members of cells that were responsible for smuggling large amounts of cocaine into the United States and subsequently transporting the cocaine to locations on the east coast. This investigation identified the Mexico source of supply for the cocaine, the brokers who coordinated the transportation of cocaine across the border for the suppliers, as well as the distribution cells which shipped cocaine to clients on the east coast. This DTO transported over 300 kilograms of cocaine valued at $6,900,000 during a six month period.

Operation Portera

The Section supported a wiretap investigation into members of a criminal enterprise working on behalf of the Mexico-based Sinaloa Cartel which resulted in the indictment of 44 people on charges related to drug trafficking, human smuggling and money laundering. This group was responsible for coordinating importation of multi-ton quantities of marijuana and illegal aliens from Mexico into the United States through the San Miguel Gate area and the smuggling of bulk drug proceeds and assault weapons back into Mexico. Law enforcement intelligence linked over 150 drug seizures since May 2008 totaling approximately 28,000 pounds of marijuana to the enterprise. Since September, 2011, 27 defendants have pled guilty and 12 were sentenced to prison. On July 9, 2012, a lead defendant with no prior criminal record was sentenced to 8 years in prison.

Operation Triple Threat

From January, 2011 to September, 2011, the Section supported a DEA wiretap investigation into a large scale drug trafficking organization responsible for smuggling approximately 1,300 kilograms of cocaine valued at $30,000,000 into the U.S. through the Nogales Port of Entry. The organization used three separate vehicles with hidden compartments to smuggle approximately 35 kilograms of cocaine per day, three times per week, and used these same vehicles to smuggle large amounts of U.S. currency back into Mexico. Once in the United States, the cocaine was being stored at various Phoenix area stash houses. On September 21, 2011, simultaneous search and arrest warrants were executed on suspected members of the drug trafficking organization and their stash houses. Police seized approximately 37 kilograms of cocaine and $262,636.00 in U.S. currency. Of the 23 defendants indicted, 10 have entered guilty pleas. Prison pleas range from 2-8.75 years for stash house operators and 8-15 for drug transporters. Prosecution is on-going.

State v. Rascon-Ramirez et. al

The Section supported a wiretap investigation resulting in the arrests of 21 of 28 suspected members of a large-scale marijuana trafficking organization responsible for smuggling over 30,000 pounds of marijuana with an estimated value between $9,000,000 and $15,000,000. This criminal enterprise used various smuggling methods, including backpackers and drive-thru vehicles, to transport illegal drugs. This coordinated take-down by law enforcement impacted the cartel plaza bosses in Naco, Mexico and dismantled an organized drug transportation cell in Southern Arizona. Prosecution is on-going with several defendants scheduled to enter changes of plea.

State v. Jose Antonio Morgan et al

In January, 2012, after a wiretap investigation supported by the Section, police executed simultaneous search and arrest warrants on suspected members of the drug trafficking organization and their stash houses. This criminal enterprise smuggled large amounts of marijuana and cocaine into the United States through the Nogales Port of Entry using tracker trailer dump trucks with scrap metal as cover, vehicles with hidden compartments, and backpackers, then smuggled large amounts of U.S. currency back into Mexico. Once in the United States, the marijuana and cocaine was being stored at various stash houses in the Nogales, Rio Rico, Tucson, and Phoenix areas. The organization has been responsible for smuggling over 19.1 kilograms of cocaine and 2,952 pounds of marijuana into the United States with a street value estimated to be between $2,631,600 and $2,126,400. Of the 15 defendants indicted, 14 were arrested. Prosecution is on-going.

State v. Juan Aguayo

In January, 2012, the Section obtained a conviction after a jury trial against Juan Aguayo for transporting 4,500 pounds of marijuana valued at $2.2 million dollars concealed inside his cattle trailer. After substantial pretrial litigation, including disclosure motions and efforts to present a duress defense, the defendant was convicted at trial. He absconded and will face mandatory prison up to 12.5 years when he is arrested.

State v. Veronica Alegria Rodriguez

The defendant was arrested at the Nogales Port of Entry for transporting for sale over 12 kilograms of cocaine valued at $250,000 in her vehicle after a Customs and Border Protection drug detection dog alerted on her vehicle. CBP officers removed the front bumper and found metal boxes welded to the frame rails of defendant’s vehicle containing cocaine. After a fully-litigated trial, a jury convicted the defendant of the charged offense. The defendant absconded and faces up to 12.5 years in prison upon her apprehension.

Operation Vaqueros, 2010

  • Mexican drug trafficking organization believed responsible for moving at least 40,000 pounds of marijuana through southern Arizona, primarily through Cochise County
  • Organization used advanced counter-surveillance, ramp trucks to overcome vehicle barriers at the border, and hidden vehicle compartments
  • “Operation Vaqueros," a 36 month collaborative investigation by state, local and federal law enforcement offices, yielded 39 state and federal indictments and 34 arrests
  • Twelve people have been indicted on federal conspiracy charges. In the course of the investigation, 26 people were indicted on federal charges, and 13 on state charges

Operation 'Los Tusa', 2009

  • Quick Action by Law Enforcement Stops Flow of Thousands of Pounds of Marijuana into Pinal County Annually
  • Seizure of $418,640 in U.S. currency, nearly 4,000 pounds of marijuana, 21 vehicles and several assault rifles
  • 21 indicted on charges including possession and transportation of marijuana for sale, money laundering, conspiracy and illegally conducting an enterprise
  • Identification and closure of multiple stash houses in Pinal County
  • Organization used a network of vehicles and individual walkers who carried backpacks filled with 50 - 100 pounds of marijuana each to smuggle across the Arizona desert from the border to southern Pinal County
  • Walkers were allegedly met by drivers in southern Pinal County who transported the drugs to stash houses throughout the county for subsequent sale and distribution
  • Mesa, Tempe and DPS SWAT teams joined PCSO multi-agency SWAT team during the execution of the high risk search warrants

Operation Tumbleweed, 2008

  • One of the largest drug trafficking take-downs in Arizona history
  • 59 indicted, 39 arrested on felony drug trafficking charges
  • Garibaldi-Lopez organization brought two million lbs. of marijuana to the U.S.
  • Traffickers used sophisticated automotive and surveillance technology to bring drugs across the border, through the desert to Phoenix drop houses
  • Year-long investigation required 85 agents from ICE, U.S. Border Patrol, U.S. Customs Air and Marine, DEA, Arizona Attorney General’s Office, DPS, Pinal County Sheriff’s Office and Phoenix Police

Operation En Fuego, 2008

  • 35 indicted, 12 arrested on felony smuggling and money laundering charges
  • Organization made $63,000 per week and smuggled a total of 10,000 undocumented immigrants in two years
  • Used a fleet of vans to transport immigrants from Phoenix to 22 states
  • Seven-month investigation conducted by the Financial Crimes Task Force and the U.S. Border Patrol