From what authorities said began as a call for service from a confidential informant in October 2009, the Mesa Police Department's Organized Crime Bureau and agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency took down a drug-running syndicate that sold its products in numerous states.
Mesa police and the Drug Enforcement Agency announced during a crowded press conference on Wednesday the drug-related indictments of 17 people they say are a part of a drug-selling syndicate based in Mexico and Arizona that transported cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine to places such as Chicago, New York and Arkansas and taking proceeds back to Mexico.
Agents and officers also seized $395,000 in cash, 19 pounds of methamphetamine, three-fourths of a pound of cocaine, six firearms and nine vehicles.
So far, 12 of the 17 people authorities say are involved in the syndicate, including its ring leader and a former employee of the Department of Motor Vehicles who was making fake driver's licenses for members of the group, have been arrested on drug-related offenses. Another suspect is incarcerated in another state for an unrelated matter, said Mesa police Detective Paul Sipe.
Mesa police Chief Frank Milstead described authorities' efforts in the investigation as "expansive and expensive."
About 18 to 20 DEA agents and Mesa police officers who participated in executing search warrants at residences throughout Tempe, Avondale and east Phoenix began making arrests on Dec. 2 and made one arrest Tuesday night. The arrests began about five months after officers received wire-tap search warrants in July.
"As long as drugs are needed and sold in the United States, these dealers will come through our porous border," Milstead said. "This case arose out of the need for drugs. We need to send a message to the drug cartels that this activity will not be tolerated here. We need to take away the drug market."
More than half of the suspects involved in the syndicate were living in the U.S. illegally, according to information from police. The outstanding four suspects are believed to be in Mexico and in Arizona.
A portion of the drug-running operation consisted of some of the dealers transporting and delivering 20 pounds of methamphetamine into the U.S. through the Arizona border every 10 days, according to Doug Coleman, special agent in charge for the Drug Enforcement Agency's office in Phoenix.
Coleman said the group's operation went back as far as 2007.
"If you take 20 pounds of meth every 10 days for that amount of time, that's an awful lot of meth coming into the United States," Coleman said. Among those arrested were the group's ringleader, Miguel Angel-Cervantes, former DMV employee Cynthia Bueno-Tapia, who was arrested in Pinal County late Tuesday, Norma Alicia Torres, Dennis Paul Salardo, Jesus Ramos-Cervantes, Manuel Martinez-Madrid, Octaviano Alvarez-Suffo, Jesus Avila-Rubio, Jose Rodriguez-Mariscal and Ruben Alfonso-Barela.
Charges include participating in a criminal syndicate, illegal conduct of an enterprise, possession of marijuana and narcotics for sale, transporting dangerous drugs, hindering prosecution, forgery and fraudulent schemes and practices.
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery and DEA Special Agent in Charge Elizabeth Kempshall also were present at the press conference.
"We have an unsecure border, and with the terrain, we are the gateway for drugs coming into the United States," Montgomery said. "We need to make Maricopa County a ‘no-go' terrain and let the Mexican drug cartels (know) this is not the place to come."