Authorities arrested nearly two dozen people Wednesday in a series of drug raids across Southern California, disrupting a vast smuggling ring linked to Mexico’s notorious Sinaloa cartel that funneled hundreds of pounds of narcotics across the border using small aircraft and other means to cities throughout the United States.
Capping a three-year investigation, more than 250 law enforcement officials fanned out across Los Angeles, Santa Ana and several Inland Empire cities, arresting 22 people, said Paul Delacourt, assistant director in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles field office. In all, 57 defendants were named in three indictments stemming from the case. Many of those named remain fugitives in Mexico, officials said.
The case provided a rare glimpse into how one of Mexico’s most powerful drug organizations sends enormous quantities of narcotics over the border, using an Amazon-like network of warehouses and “stash houses” to distribute the contraband across the U.S., federal law enforcement officials said.
“Operation Narconetas” targeted three separate drug organizations attached to the Sinaloa cartel and resulted in the seizure of roughly 850 pounds of methamphetamine, 93 pounds of heroin, 50 pounds of marijuana, nearly a ton of cocaine and approximately $1.42 million in drug money.
Delacourt said the drug traffickers used a variety of vehicles with concealed compartments to hide the narcotics, as well as several small aircraft in an attempt to avoid detection at the U.S. border.
During a downtown news briefing Wednesday in Little Tokyo, Delacourt said the arrests and indictments had an immediate impact on cartel operations in the region, removing drugs from the streets and preventing violence. The raids included the FBI, Internal Revenue Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, Los Angeles Police Department and other agencies.
Federal prosecutors said the operation also helped identify significant players in Mexican drug operations who continue to drive criminal enterprises in Southern California.
“More than simply seizing large quantities of drugs and money, this investigation was able to identify the top-level, Mexican-based traffickers who directed the transactions, and who thought they were using secure communication devices to commit their crimes,” Tracy Wilkison, first assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, said in a statement. “Our ability to obtain those communications continues to be an important part of our ability to solve these crimes.”
In a border battle of wits, the Sinaloa cartel has historically sent drugs through the Calexico crossing to a labyrinth of traffickers in Southern California.
Heavily armed tactical officers conducted Wednesday’s pre-dawn raids at houses in the Inland Empire communities of Perris, Hemet and Rialto. Federal prosecutors are seeking to force the forfeiture of several properties they charge were used to stash drugs.
The indictments list a variety of drug trafficking and conspiracy charges that could result in federal prison sentences of a decade to life without parole.
With easy routes to the border, Los Angeles and increasingly the Inland Empire are key distribution points for drug trafficking, officials said.
“Today’s joint operation sends a clear message that law enforcement is committed to stemming the flow of narcotics into our country and protecting Americans from the violence that accompanies drug trafficking,” DEA Special Agent Bill Bodner said.
Investigators acknowledged the quantities seized are likely a small part of the enormous volume of narcotics the Sinaloa organization sends across the border annually, and officials said the group works on the assumption that some of its traffickers will be caught. The cartel was formerly run by Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who was extradited to the U.S. in 2017 to face drug trafficking, money laundering and other charges. He has pleaded not guilty.
During Operation Narconetas, federal agents uncovered efforts to send proceeds from drug sales south of the border, recovering $286,550 concealed in a Honda Crosstour and $403,320 in a Kia Sorento in 2016.
The latest arrests come just three months after federal prosecutors in San Diego indicted 75 people nationwide in a large drug money laundering operation involving the Sinaloa cartel. In that case, agents seized $6 million from people accused of being “money movers” who picked up cash from drug deals in San Diego and places as far-flung as Ohio and Kentucky. The network used the popular WhatsApp messaging service to communicate.
The FBI’s Delacourt said the Mexican government “was cooperative throughout” the current investigation. The U.S. spends $100 million annually in Mexico assisting law enforcement and provided intelligence that allowed authorities there to take down Guzman.