LOS ANGELES — Nearly two dozen people were arrested Wednesday and charged with using small aircraft to smuggle heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine over the U.S. border at the behest of one of Mexico's most notorious drug cartels, authorities said.
The arrests of 22 suspects come on the heels of a nearly three-year investigation into three drug trafficking organizations that authorities say were working on behalf of the Sinaloa cartel. The groups, which received the drugs from the cartel in northern Mexico, would then stash them in soup cans, inside hidden compartments in cars and used small aircraft — though authorities wouldn't say whether they were manned or drones — to transport the drugs over the border, officials said.
"More than seizing the drugs and the money, this investigation was able to identify the top level Mexico-based traffickers who directed the transactions and who thought they were using secure communications to commit the crimes," said Tracy Wilkison, the first assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles.
Authorities seized 850 pounds (385 kilograms) of methamphetamine, nearly a ton (907 kilograms) of cocaine, 93 pounds (42 kilograms) of heroin, almost 50 pounds (23 kilograms) of marijuana and $1.42 million.
Once the drugs were brought into the U.S., they would be stored in stash houses in the Los Angeles area, said Paul Delacourt, the assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's field office in Los Angeles. The drugs were sold in Los Angeles, New York and elsewhere in the U.S., prosecutors said.
The suspects are also charged with trying to smuggle large amounts of cash back into Mexico to pay the Sinaloa Cartel, Wilkison said.
Delacourt touted cooperation from Mexican authorities and said they were helping to locate suspects who may still be in the country.
In total, 59 people have been charged as part of the indictments unsealed Wednesday and about three dozen suspects were still being sought by authorities.
The Sinaloa cartel, a Mexican drug gang with one of the largest footprints in the U.S., was formerly run by notorious Mexican drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, who was extradited to the United States last year. In an unrelated case, Guzman has pleaded not guilty to charges that his cartel laundered billions of dollars and oversaw a ruthless campaign of murders and kidnappings.