It was quite a haul: $45.2 million in cash, 27,229 pounds of marijuana, 9,512 pounds of cocaine, 705 pounds of methamphetamine, 227 pounds of pure methamphetamine, also known as "ice," and 11 pounds of heroin — that's what the government said it seized during a nearly two-year investigation into a massive drug operation based in the southwestern United States.
In addition to the drugs, the government said it confiscated $6.1 million in property and assets, approximately 100 weapons, and 94 vehicles during the investigation.
The Department of Justice investigation, headed by the Drug Enforcement Agency in cooperation with more than 100 local, state, federal and foreign law enforcement agencies, conducted Operation Imperial Emperor, which resulted in more than 400 arrests nationwide, including the 66 made today.
An indictment unsealed today charges that Victor Cazares-Gastellum, believed to be on the run in Mexico as "the head of a large-scale distribution organization [Cazares Organization] that sends metric ton quantities of cocaine from Mexico into the United States."
A grand jury also handed down indictments to alleged members of the Cazares Organization, to drivers, lookouts, recruiters and those who loaded the vehicles on conspiracy charges relating to importing and distributing the drugs, as well as money laundering.
Investigators claim the smugglers stashed drugs and money in hidden compartments in cars and trucks, as well as in toys and musical instruments. In an aggressive move, the smugglers built a bridge made of sand bags across the Colorado River near Yuma, Ariz., which allowed them to simply drive across the waterway.
Authorities say the drugs, after being transported to the United States by land, air and sea, were distributed to at least 23 states after they were processed by the drug ring in California.
DEA administrator Karen P. Tandy said the Cazares Organization rose to power quickly, but by attacking the agency where it hurt the most, the government was able to cripple the cartel.
"This sprawling drug domain, headquartered in Mexico, penetrated deep into all corners of this country," said Tandy. "Today we ripped out this empire's U.S. infrastructure from its commanders and transportation coordinators to its local distribution cells across the country, stripped it of $45 million in cash, and tossed it into the dustbin of history."