Questioning Arizona’s Sinaloa Gang Bust

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U.S. authorities announced the break up of an Arizona gang said to be working for Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, though how far this will really be a blow for Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera’s organization is a matter of debate.

Officials expressed satisfaction at the arrest of 27 members of the Jesus Valencia Rodriguez Organization, capturing more than half the group’s known membership.

“This operation has effectively dismantled the Arizona-based transportation and distribution cells of the Jesus Valencia Rodriguez organization,” said Tom Horne, Arizona’s attorney general. “This criminal enterprise was a well-organized operation that constantly worked against law enforcement interdiction efforts with sophisticated counter-surveillance methods, including using human spotters embedded on U.S. soil, night vision equipment and radio communication.”

The charges encompassed a number of alleged crimes ranging from drug trafficking to money laundering to smuggling humans across the border. While historically drug traffickers have been a distinct group from the “coyotes” who guide would-be illegal immigrants across the border, the line between the two is increasingly blurred. Today, many gangs that specialize in drug trafficking also play a role in slipping illicit human cargo over the border.

The Zetas and their rivals the Gulf Cartel are two of the drug gangs that have recently drawn attention for their involvement in human smuggling. The gangs are increasingly charging people smugglers to cross their territory, and sometimes use violence to extract yet more profits.

More than a hundred migrants kidnapped in the border city of Reynosa by members of the Gulf Cartel were rescued by federal troops in April and May. The Zetas were blamed for the execution of scores of migrants in San Fernando, Tamaulipas in August. They have also been singled out as the group responsible for mass graves containing 182 bodies discovered in April in the same town, which are thought to include the bodies of a significant number of migrants.

Huge profits drive this new interest in human trafficking. One recent estimate by the United Nations put the annual revenues from human smuggling in Mexico at $6.6 billion. While that pales in comparison to the $18 to $39 billion authorities estimate that Mexican gangs pocket from the drug trade, as InSight has noted, it is more than enough to fuel a thriving illicit industry.

While the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) linked those arrested in Arizona directly to Guzman Loera’s Sinaloa Cartel, it is not clear how close the relationship actually is. The authorities said that the Jesus Valencia Rodriguez organization had direct ties not to Guzman or his partner Ismael Zambada, but to the Paez Soto family, which operates in Caborca, Sinaloa.

Furthermore, authorities said that the Jesus Valencia Rodriguez group is based in Mexico, so it is unclear how close those arrested were to the top of that organization.

In the past, U.S. authorities have played up connections between Americans arrested in drug sweeps and their more notorious suppliers in Mexico, despite a enormous geographical and operational distance between the two. For instance, Otis Rich was arrested in 2009 as a part of Operation Xcellerator, which was hailed as a “crushing blow” against the Sinaloa Cartel, with 761 people arrested across the U.S.

Often when authorities label a mass arrest a crippling blow for a foreign gang (including the Rodriguez Valencia arrests), they do not release the names or the nationalities of those arrested, which makes it difficult to verify their claims.

As the Associated Press (AP) reported in 2010, when asked about his ostensible backers in the mountains of Mexico, Rich responded, “Sina-who? I don’t know anything about them guys.”

According to the AP, this was typical. Many of those whose arrests were hailed as an unprecedented strike against Guzman and other Mexican capos were low-level American pushers whose place in the global narcotics supply chain was so far removed from Sinaloa that they had no idea that it even existed.

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