Dozens of people, including border agent, charged in California drug bust linked to Sinaloa Cartel (2024)

Thao NguyenUSA TODAY

Nearly 50 people have been charged in Southern California after hundreds of federal, state, and local law enforcement officials busted a drug trafficking network linked to the Sinaloa Cartel, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Wednesday.

Fourteen indictments were unsealed on Wednesday charging 47 alleged members of a fentanyl and methamphetamine distribution network based in Imperial Valley, California, according to the Department of Justice. Federal prosecutors said the 47 individuals were charged with various crimes including drug trafficking, money laundering, and gun-related offenses.

More than 400 federal, state, and local law enforcement authorities were involved in a "coordinated takedown" on Wednesday morning, in which 25 search warrants were executed in parts of California as well as Phoenix, Arizona, and Salem, Oregon, the Department of Justice said in a news release.

Authorities arrested 36 defendants and are still searching for 11 fugitives as of Wednesday afternoon. Among those arrested was Alexander Grindley, who allegedly trafficked methamphetamine while working as a U.S. Border Patrol agent.

Authorities also confiscated significant quantities of fentanyl, methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin in addition to seizing over 50 firearms, according to the Department of Justice.

"With this takedown, the Justice Department has dealt yet another blow to the Sinaloa Cartel and its associates," Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement Wednesday. "We will continue to be relentless in our fight to protect American communities from the cartels."

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Ghost guns were exchanged for methamphetamine

Prosecutors said members of the drug trafficking network belonged to other trafficking organizations and supplied illicit drugs to all of Imperial County, which is about 134 miles east of San Diego. They operated in Mexicali, Mexico, and the cities of Brawley, El Centro, Westmoreland, Imperial, Calexico, Niland, Holtville, and Calipatria.

In total, authorities have seized nearly nine pounds of fentanyl — which is equal to about two million potentially fatal doses — and over 714 pounds of methamphetamine throughout their investigation, according to court records. Fifty-two firearms were also confiscated during the investigation.

The Justice Department described two seizures on June 30, 2021, where authorities found various firearms. In one instance, agents seized 15 lower receivers, three upper receivers, 18 magazines, 40 Luger 9mm rounds, and about 400 rounds of .223 Red Army ammunition, which are made in Russia, the DOJ said.

"None of the firearms or firearm parts had any identifying serial numbers or markings. They were all ghost guns," the department added. "Wiretap intercepts showed that defendant Cory Gershen supplied other members of the organization with ghost guns in exchange for methamphetamine."

Agents also uncovered that the assault rifles confiscated were to be sent to the network's source of supply in Mexico.

In the second instance, agents seized two AR-style ghost guns, a Colt .380 semiautomatic handgun, and Russian rifle ammunition from another member of the network, who prosecutors identified as Guadalupe Molina-Flores.

Pricing of fentanyl pills plummeted in recent years

USA TODAY previously reported that synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, contribute to 2 in 3 overdose deaths. These incidents have surged in recent years due to the widespread availability of cheap,illicit fentanyl.

The drug is often manufactured overseas and smuggled into the United States. A National Institutes of Health study published in May revealed that law enforcement seized more than 115 million pills containing illicit fentanyl in 2023, a significant increase from 2017 when less than 50,000 pills were confiscated.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, deaths involving synthetic opioids — specifically fentanyl — continued to rise in 2022 with over 73,800 overdose deaths reported. In that same year, the California Department of Public Health reported 24 opioid-related overdose deaths in Imperial County.

"The annual mortality rate for 2022 was 13.57 deaths per 100,000 residents — an increase of 41% over 2021," the Department of Justice said.

The investigation into the Imperial Valley-based drug trafficking network also found that the price per fentanyl pill has decreased in recent years. The DOJ said targets of the investigation had obtained fentanyl pills at about $1.65 to $1.75 per pill in June 2021.

Prices then dropped to about $1.25 per pill by December 2021 and as of May, the same pills were being sold at 45 cents per pill, according to the DOJ.

"The precipitous drop in price reflects the increased supply and availability of fentanyl being smuggled into the United States and the close ties between targets of this investigation and their Sinaloa Cartel supplier of fentanyl pills," the Department of Justice said.

Drug cartels 'at the heart' of America's drug crisis

The Sinaloa Cartel is considered to be the "largest and most powerful drug trafficking organization in the Western Hemisphere," according to the non-profit think tank InSight Crime. The organization has a worldwide network and is mainly involved in trafficking fentanyl, methamphetamine, cocaine, marijuana, and heroin.

In the Drug Enforcement Administration's 2024 National Drug Threat Assessment, the agency noted that fentanyl and methamphetamine are responsible for a majority of fatal drug poisonings across the country, and blamed the influence of drug cartels.

"The Sinaloa and Jalisco Cartels are at the heart of this crisis," according to the assessment, which added that cartels' far reach has "effectively eliminated any competition in U.S. markets, and enabled cartel members to establish a presence in every U.S. state."

The USA TODAY Network has reported the far-reaching impact of cartels in western U.S. regions, including near the Portland area, the Puget Sound, and Alaska, in which tranquil communities become targets for drug traffickers as cartels aim to further establish their network.

Contributing: Ken Alltucker, USA TODAY

Dozens of people, including border agent, charged in California drug bust linked to Sinaloa Cartel (2024)


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