Major smuggling organization cracked in So. Ariz.

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Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne announces the arrest of 21 of 46 members of a Mexican drug and immigrant smuggling operation in Southern Arizona. By Bryce Potter Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne announces the arrest of 21 of 46 members of a Mexican drug and immigrant smuggling operation in Southern Arizona. By Bryce Potter

PHOENIX (AP) -- A major marijuana and immigrant smuggling operation that used a route through a southern Arizona Indian reservation has been effectively dismantled, authorities said Thursday.

The group with ties to a Mexican drug cartel used a variety of methods to bring tons of marijuana into the U.S. through the Tohono O'Odham Indian Nation southwest of Tucson since 2008, Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne said. The trafficking organization connected to the Sinaloa drug cartel also brought illegal immigrants in the country, and returned cash and weapons to Mexico. pronounced

Twenty-one of 46 suspected members of the organization led by a Mexican resident have been arrested and face indictments on a variety of smuggling, conspiracy, money laundering and other state charges, Horne said. The leader, identified as Jesus Valencia Rodriguez, is believed to be in Mexico and remains at large.

Since 2008, more than 150 drug seizures involving about 28,000 pounds of marijuana have been linked to the group. Officials also seized 41 assault weapons that were bound for Valencia in Mexico.

Most disturbing, Horne said, was that the smugglers used sophisticated surveillance from hilltop locations to spot and avoid U.S. Border Patrol agents. The spotters used night vision equipment and radios.

"It's pretty disconcerting when they have spotters in high spots so that they can tell when the Border Patrol is coming or when they're not there in order to be able to get the smugglers though without being detected," Horne said. "It illustrated the fact that we have to become more sophisticated in dealing with them."

State, federal and tribal authorities worked together to break up the organization.

The major entry point was a crossing that links the tribe's reservations in Mexico and the U.S. Members of the tribe freely cross the border there. The smugglers took advantage of the San Miguel Gate by recruiting members of the Tohono O'Odham Nation to help bring drugs and illegal immigrants into the U.S., Horne said. Some of those indicted are members of the Tohono O'Odham tribe.

"The tribal members have to be able to go back and forth because their reservation is on both sides of the border," Horne said. "So we have to be able to detect when they're not legitimate members of the tribe engaged in their daily business but (actually) drug smugglers or other illegals."

The reservation covers more than 4,400 square miles and has become a regular conduit for drugs and migrants moving from the border north to Phoenix and beyond in recent years. Tohono O'Odham Chairman Ned Norris Jr. said the tribe wants the drug smuggling to stop to protect the U.S. and the reservation.

The marijuana was brought into the U.S. by backpackers, or concealed in secret compartments or inside the tires of special ramp trucks used to cross border barriers.

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