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DEA agents link seized drugs, money to major Mexican drug cartel operation within Utah

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 30 2011 9:35 p.m. MDT

Law enforcement vehicles surround the building as DEA agents serve a warrant at Mi Ranchito Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2011 on State Street near 3600 south.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Officials with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration took down some major players in a large drug ring operating between Mexico, California, Nevada and Utah on Tuesday.

Those arrested were key members of the well-known Sinaloa Cartel.

"We are not letting them get a foothold here," said DEA Special Agent Frank Smith. "The DEA and its partners are steadfast to terminate this before it gets a foothold here in Utah."

Smith said at least seven arrests were made Tuesday, including one of a commanding officer of the complicated cartel who was accompanying a significant load of drugs across state lines at the time of his arrest.

"We knew if we didn't' take the opportunity to arrest him today, we may never get him again," Smith said. The arrest was made in southern Utah on I-15. Many of those arrested Tuesday, Smith said, had crossed the U.S. border illegally.

"These are people who acted as legitimate business people here in Utah," he said. One was an owner of the South Salt Lake Mi Ranchito Restaurant, which was raided Tuesday afternoon. The restaurant was used to facilitate the drug distribution business and was shut down Tuesday.

A home in the Daybreak community was also raided for evidence and agents were seeking additional members of the cartel in areas of West Valley City late Tuesday.

An 18-month investigation into the production of the cartel yielded the seizure of more than 30 pounds of methamphetamine, 200 pounds of marijuana, a kilogram of heroin and a kilogram of cocaine, as well as more than $322,000 in U.S. currency, Smith said. Over the process of the investigation, more than 30 arrests have been made.

"It's really not about the drugs. It's about the people we arrested," Smith said, adding that nabbing key players "disrupts their commanding control." When new cartel workers are selected, they are likely not as experienced as those that will be heavily charged with federal crimes.

Smith said the top priority is public safety, as some cartel members, who are selling drugs to Utahns, carry potentially dangerous weapons.

Agents will seek federal prosecution on the case of the cartel members. Some, Smith said, face very long prison sentences.

"I can tell you that this is the most significant case we've done this year," he said. The investigation is ongoing and Smith expects the DEA to issue warrants and make additional arrests in Mexico on similar suspicions of drug cartel operation in the U.S. — activity he said "staunch enforcement" will hopefully prevent.

E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com

Twitter: wendyleonards

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