Two people were killed and 22 suspected members of the Sinaloa Cartel were arrested during what is believed to be an unprecedented cross-border law enforcement operation in Sonora, officials say.
Mexican officials had been investigating a stash house that was used for drugs and people in a rural area of the border town of Sonoyta, Sonora. The town is across the border from Lukeville, the popular border crossing used to reach the beach town of Puerto Penasco.
On Friday, Mexican federal officers raided the property, resulting in a shootout with armed men guarding the property.
The names of those killed and those arrested have not been provided, but U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said over the weekend that those arrested were in the custody of the Mexican government. American officials were to seek extradition of individuals facing criminal charges here.
Mexican law enforcement staged for the operation in Lukeville with the assistance of U.S. law enforcement agencies, which some call a first.
“I’ve been living here for 15 years, and there’s no precedent for a mega-operation, even less so of a binational one,” said Hugo Regalado, Sonoyta’s city manager. He said city officials have been talking with long-time Sonoyta residents and no one remembers seeing anything like it before.
The operation, dubbed Diablo Express, involved about 15 to 20 Mexican federal police vehicles and four or five helicopters, Regalado said.
The city awaits specific information about the operation, he said, noting that local government was not notified before the raid.
While the cross-border cooperation is unusual here, a 2011 report by The New York Times noted that the Obama administration was allowing the Mexican police to stage for drug raids from inside the United States.
During the rare operations, the New York Times said, Mexican commandos assembled in designated areas in the United States and dispatched helicopter missions back across the border aimed at suspected drug traffickers. That is what has been described in Friday’s raid that launched from Lukeville.
Tony Coulson, who retired as the agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Tucson office in 2010, said he had never seen anything like it.
“I’ve never heard of anything like this, where armed Mexican police is brought to this side to actually stage an operation into Mexico,” he said.
In Friday’s raid, authorities confiscated 15 assault weapons, three handguns and more than 500 pounds of marijuana. Coulson said the drugs and weapons are far less important than who they arrested.
“You want to get at the highest level of who controls that corridor in order to totally disrupt and dismantle that group,” he said. “Your whole goal of an operation like that is to get key lieutenants who run the command and control the infrastructure of that area or group.”
Sonoyta is strategically important for the trafficking of drugs into Southern California, Coulson said.
“The corridor from Rocky Point to Sonoyta is a critical part of whoever controls the Baja California and Tijuana plaza,” he said.
The Sinaloa Cartel is one of world’s most notorious drug-trafficking rings.