SAN DIEGO — Federal authorities Wednesday announced indictments against the alleged leaders of six drug distribution rings charged with transporting cocaine and methamphetamine for one of Mexico's largest drug cartels.
Thirty-five people face smuggling and conspiracy charges in what authorities described as a trafficking network based in the Imperial Valley. About $20 million in drugs and cash were seized during the 18-month investigation, according to federal prosecutors.
They said the alleged traffickers are linked to the Sinaloa cartel, which has long controlled a trafficking corridor through the Baja California capital of Mexicali into Calexico, a small town in the Imperial Valley.
The rings allegedly smuggled the drugs hidden inside compartments of cars. The cash proceeds, sometimes bundled in plastic bags labeled $10,000, were shipped back to Mexico also hidden in cars, authorities said.
Seizures of bulk cash shipments triggered the investigation, as agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration were able to trace the money back to the Sinaloa cartel, said Eileen Zeidler, an agency spokeswoman.
In one case, authorities discovered $1.7 million hidden inside the sidewall of a truck.
U.S. Atty. Karen Hewitt of the Southern District of California said the operation, named Money Train, shut down a key trafficking corridor for the cartel, which is believed to be led by Mexico's most wanted man, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.
The total cash seizures of $9 million, Hewitt said at a San Diego news conference, ranked among the largest ever in the San Diego area.
Nineteen members of the organizations were arrested this week, four of them in Mexico. Sixteen suspects are at large, authorities said.
The rings operated in the small Imperial Valley towns of Brawley and El Centro, where they hired couriers to drive the drug-laden cars through the border crossing in Calexico, authorities said.
Others would then deliver the drugs to major cities across the United States, including Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, Zeidler said.
The suspects are scheduled to be arraigned today in El Centro. If convicted, they face sentences ranging from 10 years to life in prison.