More than two dozen people were charged in what authorities said Friday was a window into an emerging Mexican drug cartel's efforts to smuggle massive amounts of methamphetamine into California.
The charges were part of a 21-month investigation targeting the Knights Templar cartel. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said the investigation has resulted in seizures of more than 1,000 pounds of methamphetamine, 200 pounds of cocaine, 28 pounds of heroin, 320 pounds of marijuana and $200,000 cash.
The San Diego County district attorney's office charged 28 people with drug-related crimes, including 16 who were arrested this week. The other 12 were at-large.
Another 40 people were previously arrested in California as part of the investigation, said DEA spokeswoman Amy Roderick.
"Drugs and money were found hidden in cars, taped to people's bodies, stashed in people's homes and buried in people's backyards," said District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis.
Knights Templar is a quasi-religious cartel known as a major trafficker of methamphetamine. Based in central Mexico's Michoacan state, it formed about two years ago from as a splinter group of La Familia Michoacana when that cartel's leadership was annihilated by the Mexican government.
"These guys are turning into the largest distributors of methamphetamine (in the U.S.)," said Stephen Tomaski, the DEA's assistant special agent in charge in San Diego.
Knights Templar and Sinaloa are the two main Mexican cartels operating in the smuggling corridor of Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego, Tomaski said.
Methamphetamine seizures have risen steadily at California border crossings with Mexico to 7,340 pounds in the 2011 fiscal year from 2,286 pounds in 2007, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. California border inspectors seized 7,601 pounds during the first nine months of the 2012 fiscal year, up 51 percent from the same period a year earlier.
Methamphetamine is often smuggled in cars through San Diego's San Ysidro and Otay Mesa ports of entry, DEA officials said.
Authorities refused to discuss the alleged roles of any defendant. The DEA's Tomaski said they "coordinated loads of massive amounts of drugs."
"These are people that run cells of this drug trafficking organization here in this country and then parcel out the drugs to other cells within the rest of the United States," he said.