What began as an ordinary traffic stop in Tempe instead turned into a 15-month drug trafficking investigation and the arrest of 203 suspects linked to the notorious Sinaloa cartel.

But after seizing $7.8 million in cash and $12 million worth of drugs, police said on Tuesday that they're not done. The suspects arrested have ties to cartel operations in several other states including Nevada, Wyoming, Utah, Missouri and Kansas.

The massive drug case began with a patrol officer in Tempe who pulled over a known drug user at McClintock Drive and Elliot Road. The officer quickly realized there was more than what would have otherwise been a $100 meth deal, Tempe police said.

"It got us into some things where we really didn't anticipate the level of activity within our county," Tempe police Chief Tom Ryff said.

Narcotics detectives quickly figured out the Drug Enforcement Agency was investigating the cartel, and the agencies began working together on what they dubbed Operation Crank Call.

Police have been arresting suspects during the entire investigation and said more arrests will come even if they aren't announced.

So far, the case turned up 650 pounds of marijuana, 123 pounds of cocaine, 4.5 pounds of heroin and 435 pounds of meth.

Ryff said the operation exacted a lot of pain on the cartel but that it will take time to learn just how much they've slowed the organization's ability to move drugs.

Sinoloa is Mexico's largest cartel with ties in every U.S. state, officials said. They said the cartel's strongest U.S. operation is in Arizona.

One man has been sentenced to 10 years in prison. Others face 3 to 10 years in prison for charges ranging from possessing paraphernalia to having several pounds of drugs.

Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne said this is the fourth major drug bust in the state since he took his post a year ago. The largest one resulted in 76 arrests. That seemed like a massive operation, Horne said, until now.

"It's frankly an obscene amount of drugs and money," he said. "Those numbers reflect the horrific scope of the drug trafficking problem in our community."

Horne used the Tuesday announcement to call on the federal government to bolster security along the border with Mexico. While federal officials have touted a drop in the number of illegal immigrants being apprehended, Horne said there hasn't been a similar decrease in drug activity.

Horne said the border is more dangerous than ever. The number of people apprehended who have serious criminal records has gone from about 8 percent to 17 percent in five years, he said.

Arizona is also fighting drug use by working on the demand side, Horne said. He appealed to potential users to consider that drug money has fueled violence that included a beheading in Chandler.

"One of the ironic things is that young people in this country will not buy tuna fish unless it's caught in nets that save the porpoises," Horne said. "They have to realize that (when) they buy drugs, this money is going to cartels that engage in all kinds of very vicious crimes, not just selling drugs, but beheadings and kidnappings and mutilating people and murdering people."

Tempe Cmdr. Kim Hale said police wouldn't release many details about the operation to avoid tipping off the cartel. But he called it the largest drug bust in Tempe.

"When you put it all together, it's been one hell of a case," Hale said.

• Contact writer: (480) 898-6548 or ggroff@evtrib.com

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