DEA, Tempe Police nab 4.5M fentanyl pills, 3,000 lbs of meth during joint operation

Drugs and cash have a street value of $13 million, official said.
Arizona and federal law enforcement say they are going after the Sinaloa Cartel following a massive drug bust in Tempe.
Published: Feb. 23, 2023 at 12:56 PM MST|Updated: Feb. 23, 2023 at 8:07 PM MST
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TEMPE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) — The Tempe Police Department, Drug Enforcement Administration and Arizona Attorney General’s Office announced on Thursday a major drug bust in Arizona that took three years to pull off.

An estimated 4.5 million fentanyl pills were seized in addition to 3,000 pounds of methamphetamine and various large amounts of heroin, cocaine, and fentanyl powder. Investigators also seized about 50 firearms. “This is a significant bust, but there is a lot of this drug coming across the border. It’s killing our kids and destroying and tearing our families apart in Arizona but it’s also impacting the rest of the country,” Mayes said. “So we need every law enforcement agency, every attorney general along the border but also across the country to be laser-focused on stopping this fentanyl.”

While specific details of the operation weren’t revealed, authorities staged the scene with displays of the drugs seized. Approximately 135 kilos of cocaine, 140 pounds of fentanyl powder, 149 firearms, and $2 million in cash were taken during the investigation. In total, the drugs and cash have an estimated street value of $13 million.

During a recent operation, agents recovered over 4.5 million fentanyl pills, 3,000 lbs. of meth and other drugs and made 150 arrests.

In addition, Mayes called the Sinaloa Drug Cartel out by name, saying in part that they are “evil.” Such remarks came as the Biden Administration sanctioned key members of the Sinaloa cartel that provided chemicals for their labs. “In addition to sanctioning the two brothers running the network – Ludim Zamudio Lerma and Luis Alfonso Zamudio Lerma – the US Treasury also designated four other Mexican nationals and Sinaloa Cartel members as well as six Mexico-based companies,” CNN reported Wednesday. Recently, President Joe Biden promised “strong penalties to crack down on fentanyl trafficking” during his State of the Union address.

“I mean it’s a real Herculean challenge from both sides of the border,” said Ioan Grillo, one of the Arizonan officials trying to find ways to take on the Sinaloa cartel. Grillo is a longtime journalist in Mexico covering drugs and organized crime.

He said the Sinaloa cartel targets certain cities as hubs to mass distribute fentanyl. “Phoenix, Arizona is one of those hubs. So, it’s a place you bring in drugs from Mexico, from Sonora. And then they’ll be brought into safe houses in Phoenix and then go to other places,” Grillo said.

DEA special agent Cheri Oz said they have a plan to take out the biggest cartel operatives. “We’re looking at taking out the worst of the worst, and we’re focused on that regardless of where that person is located,” said Oz.

But Grillo said the big picture wouldn’t do much to stop them. “You kill 100 people, there’s still probably 100,000 cartel operatives here in Mexico, so you’re not going to change that. And most of them are hidden in cities, towns, and houses and moving around. You’re not going to take out the cartel that way, so it’s a very big challenge,” said Grillo. He added supply and demand play a part in any business, so if the U.S. and Arizona can lessen the demand for drugs like this, that’s one way this crisis could improve.

Grillo says traditionally, the cartel is much more cautious in carrying out murder in the U.S. rather than in Mexico. Still, if they’re being called out by officials like this, it’s something to monitor. “There is a concern the violence could go up in the United States or they could even be a response to law enforcement, but that would really be a game changer if that happened,” he said.

Grillo mentioned another tactic he’s seen in some states is charging dealers with murder if they sell fentanyl to somebody, resulting in death. That is a proposed bill making its way through the Arizona legislature right now. As of Thursday, it’s passed out of its first senate committee and could be heading to the house soon.

The news conference comes just hours after the major drug bust was announced at our southern border and along Interstate 10 between Phoenix and Tucson. In total, troopers confiscated an estimated $9.4 million worth of drugs, approximately 1,500 pounds of meth, fentanyl pills, and cocaine, over the course of four days.

CNN’s Sam Fossum contributed to this report.