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Arizona joins federal partnership to target drug cartel cash

Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes praised a new partnership with the U.S. Department of the Treasury to target money tied to the illegal fentanyl trade. But she also called on the federal government to do more to stop the flow of illegal drugs into Arizona — or empower local law enforcement to fill in the gaps.

On Friday, Mayes joined Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo, U.S. Attorney Gary M. Restaino and Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego to announce new sanctions against the Sinaloa cartel and an information sharing agreement between the Treasury and Arizona Attorney General’s Office to better target illicit profits.

“I truly hope that this is the first in many steps that the federal government takes in helping us retake the border from the Mexican cartels,” Mayes said. “We need help. Our sheriffs need help.”

Mayes said more than 34 million fentanyl pills were seized in Arizona in 2023 and those seizures are on the rise. According to data from Custom and Border Protection, law enforcement confiscated over 13,000 pounds of fentanyl in fiscal year 2023.

Both Mayes and Adeyemo lambasted Congress for failing to pass border legislation that would have included funding for new drug detection equipment at ports of entry.

“The cartels use our ports of entry as their own personal postal service to send fentanyl to the rest of the nation,” Mayes said.

Short of receiving that additional support, Mayes said the federal government should consider empowering sheriffs and local police in specific circumstances, including allowing them to down drones used by the cartels to transport drugs over the border.

Mayes says those drones are traveling as far as 30 miles into Arizona.

“And if the federal government cannot handle it, then I think that sheriffs and other, potentially local law enforcement, should be delegated that responsibility by the federal government,” Mayes said. 

The White House did not respond to a request for comment, but a spokesman for the Treasury said he felt Mayes’ comments were directed at Congress for its inaction on border security legislation.

Mayes’ spokesman Richie Taylor said the comments about empowering local law enforcement was directed at “Washington in general.”

Mayes, a Democrat, clarified that she still thinks the federal government is the best entity to handle those issues, and she does not support bills backed by Republicans at the Arizona legislature that would empower local police to arrest people who cross the border illegally outside of ports of entry.

The lawmakers backing those bills said they are needed to secure the border,  stop individuals who pose a potential national security risk from entering the country illegally, and stem the flow of fentanyl and other drugs into Arizona.

“It is the hub of the country – 90% of the fentanyl coming through this country is from Arizona,” said state Rep. Joseph Chaplik (R-Scottsdale) while presenting one of those bills to a legislative committee.

But Restaino, the U.S. Attorney for Arizona, said the “lion’s share” of illegal drugs coming into Arizona from Mexico pass through ports of entry, and immigration officials have said that most of the fentanyl coming through those ports is smuggled by U.S. citizens or others legally authorized to enter the country.

That’s why Mayes and Adeyemo are calling for Congress to approve the funding for detection equipment they say will make it easier for law enforcement to stem that flow. 

Still, Restaino acknowledged that “not insignificant amount” of drugs is likely crossing the border in other areas. He also called for additional federal resources to open more Border Patrol checkpoints.

“These are immigration checkpoints, but they serve an important secondary function for drugs,” Restaino said.

For now, Adeyemo said targeting drug money is one of the best ways for federal and state law enforcement to stem the flow of drugs into Arizona. He said cartels want access to American dollars and the U.S. financial system.

“Making sure that they can't make that money is stopping them from both being able to profit from the deaths they're causing here in the United States, but also to have money to reinvest in their businesses to make them more sophisticated,” Adeyemo said.

Mayes said existing financial institutions — she named Western Union specifically — were, and in some cases still are, being used by cartels to traffic illicit profits. 

In a statement, Western Union said it condemns criminal activity and invests in resources to “stamp out” illegal activity.

“To reinforce this position, Western Union has developed and continues to enhance its global compliance programs, including our anti-money laundering program comprised of policies, procedures, systems, and internal controls to monitor and identify illicit activity. … We also continue to adapt our business practices and strategies to help us comply with current and evolving legal standards, including heightened regulatory focus on compliance with anti-money laundering, counter financing of terrorism or fraud prevention requirements,” according to the statement.

The Treasury announced sanctions against 15 members of the Sinaloa Cartel and six Mexico-based businesses accused of facilitating the movement of drugs and money on the cartel’s behalf. That includes individuals accused of engaging in a scheme to purchase cell phones in the U.S. using drug profits and then transporting and selling those phones in Mexico. 

Adeyemo said those sanctions will make it more difficult for individuals to move money they already have deposited with U.S. financial institutions.

“They have so much cash that they need to go through the financial system in some way, be it a money services business or through a financial institution,” Adeyemo said. “By sanctioning them, what we're saying is that U.S. financial institutions that have any resources that are tied to these individuals or to these organizations need to now freeze those assets.”

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Wayne Schutsky is a broadcast field correspondent covering Arizona politics on KJZZ. He has over a decade of experience as a journalist reporting on local communities in Arizona and the state Capitol.