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Arizona just made its largest meth bust ever, and it may be a signal from Mexico's most powerful cartels

Christopher Woody
Mexico Arizona meth seizure
Mexico Arizona meth seizure

(US Customs and Border Protection/KGUN9)
Meth packages in the wall of a tractor-trailer, seized in Nogales, Arizona, on February 5.

US Customs and Border Protection agents at a border crossing in Nogales, Arizona, seized 387 pounds of methamphetamine on February 5, the largest meth seizure in the crossing's history.

A tractor-trailer hauling bell peppers that was attempting to cross at the Mariposa Commercial Facility was stopped, and CBP agents pulled 400 packages of meth worth $1.1 million out of the trailer's front wall and rear doors.

The driver, Juan Rodolfo Lugo-Urias, was turned over to Homeland Security Investigations agents.

But the location and size of the bust indicate that he may have been just one part of the operation.

While fragmentation among Mexican cartels in recent years has made it easier for upstart traffickers to enter the trade, 387 pounds is a lot of meth, and it's more than likely that this was an operation run by an established cartel.

The location of Lugo's capture raises the possibility of two organizations: the Sinaloa cartel and the Beltran-Leyva Organization. And it may be a signal that neither of those organizations has faded from the scene, despite recent setbacks.

The Sinaloa cartel

Despite Sinaloa cartel chief Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán's recent encounters with the law, the Sinaloa cartel maintains an active presence in Mexico and the US and is heavily involved in smuggling a wide variety of drugs.

These DEA maps released last year show that the cartel controls the territory on both sides of the crossing at Nogales.

Nogalas Arizona border crossing meth
Nogalas Arizona border crossing meth

(2015 DEA NDTA)
The Nogales border crossing and the entirety of Arizona are suspected of being Sinaloa cartel areas of influence.

"The Sinaloa cartel maintains the most significant presence in the United States," the DEA said in an intelligence report released last summer.

Guzmán's Sinaloa organization, a multibillion-dollar operation, is "the dominant [transnational criminal organization] along the West Coast, through the Midwest, and into the Northeast," the report added.

If Lugo was working for the Sinaloa cartel, then the product he was carrying would have slipped into the organization's extensive trafficking network within the US.

As part of the dominant cartel operating in the US, Sinaloa operatives supply much of the country. In 2013, the DEA believed that the cartel supplied "80% of the heroin, cocaine, marijuana, and methamphetamine — with a street value of $3 billion — that floods the Chicago region each year."

cartel drug map
cartel drug map

(Business Insider/Andy Kiersz)
Based on the testimony of former Sinaloa operatives, this map shows the cartel's distribution network as of the late 2000s.

And if Lugo was working for the Sinaloa cartel, it would not be the cartel's first effort to hide drugs in a shipment of peppers.

Beltran-Leyva Organization

That Lugo was captured in Nogales, however, also suggests another possible backer.

The city was identified as an area of "significant or increasing presence" for the Beltran-Leyva Organization, or BLO, by the DEA's 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment.

Meth seizures at the US border Mexico
Meth seizures at the US border Mexico

(DEA 2015 NDTA)
Meth seizures were up all along the US border in 2014.

The BLO, formed by the Beltran-Leyva brothers, was originally a close partner of the Sinaloa cartel, but it broke with Guzmán's organization in the late 2000s.

Since 2010 the BLO has been significantly weakened, with much of its top leadership — including the Beltran-Leyva brothers and their top enforcer, "La Barbie" — killed or captured.

Despite those losses and the cartel's decline, it has maintained some alliances with Mexican cartels, and the DEA said that in 2014 the BLO was both active in the US and working with Colombian traffickers to move cocaine into the US.

'Meth is the only way here to make some real money'

Regardless of who sent this specific shipment, agents on the US border have seen a surge in meth trafficking in recent years.

crystal meth
crystal meth

(Hannelore Foerster/Getty)
Members of the Bundeskriminalamt German law enforcement agency, the Federal Criminal Office, with portions of 2.9 tonnes of confiscated chlorephedrin, one of the main ingredients used to make methamphetamine, also called crystal meth, at a news conference in 2014 in Wiesbaden, Germany.

"In fiscal year 2014, the United States Border Patrol seized a record 3,771 pounds of meth at the Mexican border," author Ioan Grillo wrote in January 2015.

That was "more than double the 1,838 pounds it seized in 2011."

Meth is incredibly cheap to produce, with often readily available chemicals, like those found in flu medicine, cobbled together in makeshift labs.

"These guys get ingredients worth $65 and turn them into drugs worth $18,000 or more," Mike Vigil, former head of international operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration, told Grillo.

All told, Americans spend $6 billion to $22 billion on meth every year.

With money like that to be made, the shipment seized in Nogales is unlikely to be the last.

"How the f--- else are we going to get by?" a meth cooker named Bernardo told Grillo in Mexico. "I might get a job picking tomatoes now and again but meth is the only way here to make some real money."

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