4.5 million fentanyl pills, 3,000 pounds of meth seized during joint drug bust

Local, state and federal authorities shared details on Thursday about a major drug bust that...
Local, state and federal authorities shared details on Thursday about a major drug bust that took three years to pull off.(Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes)
Published: Feb. 24, 2023 at 4:25 AM MST
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TEMPE, Ariz. (3TV/CBS 5/Gray News) - The Tempe Police Department, Drug Enforcement Administration and Arizona Attorney General’s Office shared details on Thursday about a major bust 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 large amounts of heroin, cocaine and fentanyl powder, according to authorities.

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. 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,” Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes said.

While specific details of the operation weren’t revealed, authorities staged the scene Thursday with displays of the drugs seized.

Approximately 138 kilos of cocaine, 66 kilos of fentanyl powder and $2 million in cash were taken during the investigation.

The drugs have an estimated street value of $13 million, according to the DEA. More than 150 individuals have been charged over the course of the three-year investigation.

Mayes called the Sinaloa drug cartel out by name on Thursday, saying they are “evil.”

Her remarks came as the Biden administration sanctioned key members of the Sinaloa cartel who provided chemicals for their labs.

“In addition to sanctioning the two brothers running the network – Ludim Zamudio Lerma and Luis Alfonso Zamudio Lerma – the U.S. Treasury also designated four other Mexican nationals and Sinaloa cartel members as well as six Mexico-based companies,” CNN reported Wednesday.

President Joe Biden promised “strong penalties to crack down on fentanyl trafficking” during his recent State of the Union address.

“I mean, it’s a real Herculean challenge from both sides of the border,” says 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 says.

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,” Oz says.

Grillo said it will be challenging to stop the cartel.

“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.

The cartel is much more cautious in carrying out murder in the U.S. rather than in Mexico, Grillo added.

“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.

Another tactic Grillo said he has seen in some states is charging dealers with murder if they sell fentanyl to somebody that results in their death.

That is a bill currently making its way through the Arizona legislature. As of Thursday, the proposal passed out of its first Senate committee and could be heading to the House soon.

Thursday’s news conference came just hours after another major drug bust was announced at the southern border and along I-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 in that operation.