In Nogales, a push to target 'plaza bosses' to stem fentanyl smuggling into U.S.

On the porch of the historic customs house in Nogales, Ariz. on Wednesday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection head Troy Miller announced a new effort to target “plaza bosses” in the twin border cities who help move fentanyl into Arizona.

For the last three years, the federal government has moved to clamp down on opioid smuggling along the U.S.-Mexico border. Last year, President Joe Biden used his State of the Union address to push for a “major surge to stop fentanyl production, sale and trafficking” along the border, including additional funding for scanners to inspect cargo and stop pills and powder at the border.

Miller said “Operation Plaza Spike” is an expanded enforcement effort to clamp down on the “natural choke point in the flow of fentanyl” across the southern border, beginning with Sergio Valenzuela Valenzuela, who allegedly leads the “plaza”—or territory—in Nogales, Sonora. 

CBP officials said Valenzuela, or Gigio, and his organization are responsible for 44 percent of the fentanyl smuggled into the U.S. Of that nearly 90 percent comes through border crossings stashed in passenger vehicles and cargo hauls, they said.

CBP officials said there are 27 such plazas in Mexico, each one a specific territory—delineated by geographic or man-made boundaries, like roads, or train tracks—and often south of a U.S. border crossing.

The enforcement push will not just focus on cartel leaders, but also seek to intercept pill presses for fentanyl, chemicals used to make the synthetic drug, and intercept guns and ammunition heading south, Miller said.

bosses: high-ranking cartel official who controls all illicit activity
through the plaza – extortion, kidnapping, and the trafficking of
humans, dangerous drugs, and firearms,” CBP officials said. “Nothing happens in the
plaza without the plaza boss knowing about, directing it, or taking a

In September 2022, Justice Department officials in San Diego unveiled a 2018 indictment against Valenzuela and announced sanctions aimed at cutting off his funding. Justice Department officials said Valenzuela leads the plaza for the Sinaloa cartel under the direction of Ismael Zambada Garcia, known as El Mayo, and leads a “poly-drug
smuggling organization responsible for the transportation and
importation of multi-ton quantities of illicit drugs, including
methamphetamine, heroin, and fentanyl” into the U.S.

Along with Valenzuela, U.S. officials also targeted his “right-hand man” Leonardo Pineda Armenta, who is responsible for directing operations for him, and six lieutenants who ultimately report to Valenzuela. U.S. officials also said two companies in Mexico are owned or controlled by people linked to Valenzuela. 

The indictment and Treasury Department sanctions “demonstrate that the Department of Justice, along with its law enforcement partners, will continue to target Sinaloa Cartel kingpins who import massive amounts of illegal drugs into the United States,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Randy S. Grossman in 2022.

The plazas profit from illegal activity by either directly running smuggling operations or charging other organizations a “tax” to smuggle through their territory, Miller said.

Miller said over the last several years, CBP has “evolved and adapted” strategies to intercept drug smuggling to match the “sophistication, innovation and relentlessness of the criminal organizations responsible for trafficking fentanyl across our borders.” 

“Plaza Spike” will take lessons and tactics learned from California as part of “Operation Apollo” which began in October 2023 and bring them into Arizona, Miller said. In the coming months, the agency will seek to “illuminate and understand the network’s logistics, routes and tactics, techniques and procedures” used by drug smuggling organizations in Arizona. 

“This campaign will have a tremendous impact on the cartels ability to smuggle this dangerous drug across our borders,” Miller said. CBP officials said the drug trade through the “plazas” has “accelerated the abuse of
synthetic drugs” including opioids like fentanyl,
heroin, as well as xylazine, methamphetamine, and other chemically synthesized designer drugs.

Since October, CBP seized 222,000 pounds of drugs, including more than 8,000 pounds of fentanyl. Within this same time period, CBP also seized more than 1,600 weapons and nearly 200,000 rounds of ammunition.

During the first two weeks of March, CBP officials in San Diego stopped 73 different smuggling attempts, seizing 131 pounds of cocaine, 11 pounds of heroin, 10,967 pounds of methamphetamine, and 213 pounds of fentanyl. The total estimated street value of the narcotics was more than $20 million.

Last year, the White House called for $355 million for CBP, including millions for Non-Intrusive Inspection Systems “with a primary focus on fentanyl detection at ports of entry.”

As part of this, the White House aimed to add 123 new large-scale
scanners at border crossings by September 2026, including would increase
the number of scanned personal vehicles from just 2 percent to 40
percent, while expanding the number of cargo vehicles from 17 percent to
70 percent, CBP said.

CBP has pushed hard for these systems over
the past decade, expanding the use of X-ray and Gamma-ray imaging
systems to peer through the metal and plastic of vehicles, including
semi-tractor trailers and personal vehicles at border crossings and U.S.
shipping ports.

However, in March it became clear that CBP was warehousing some scanners, but needed an additional $300 million to install them—funding that hadn’t come because of Congressional recalcitrance and fights over the budget for Homeland Security.

the 2021 fiscal year—which began in October 2020—CBP intercepted 11,200
pounds of fentanyl. Two years later, the amount sharply increased to
27,000 pounds. In Arizona, officials intercepted 13,300 pounds in 2023,
and so far this fiscal year, officials have found 4,900 pounds—84
percent of which arrived at border crossings.

“So long as fentanyl and other illicit opioids wreak tragedy across American communities, the men and women of the Department of Homeland Security will remain unrelenting in their work stopping these deadly drugs from hitting our streets and taking lives,” said Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas in a statement. “Operation Plaza Spike is a critical step in our ongoing whole-of-Department campaign to directly attack the transnational criminal organizations that peddle narcotics, death, and destruction for profit. We are sparing no effort to dismantle cartels and ensure everyone from kingpins to plaza bosses are brought to justice.”

James Nunnallee, the deputy chief of operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration, said his agency intercepted 377 million doses of fentayl last year. As part of the new effort, the DEA will deploy three “counter-threat teams” one dedicated to the Sinaloa cartel, one to the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, and the third to illicit finance networks that help fund smuggling efforts.

Nunnallee said the DEA is “determined to attack these networks at every level” including Chinese chemical companies that supplying raw ingredients to make fentanyl.

Along with the DEA, officials with Homeland Security Investigations, a part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will focus on the Nogales plaza.

Ricardo Mayoral, assistant director for HSI’s Countering Transnational Organized Crime Division said it will “come as no surprise” that the plazas use “sophisticated communications networks” to move drugs and groups of people to “locations where they feel there’s a high probability of successful entry without law enforcement detection.”

“The Sinaloa cartel, like all the other parts are in the smoky space to make money,” Mayoral said. “They don’t care about anything other than those who attempt to stand in their way. For that reason, federal law enforcement needs to continue to work together so we can leverage our distinctive and unique authorities against the cartels.”

Miller said for the last few years, federal officials have sought to collect information on the cartels, but “now we want to elevate that strategy” he said, and begin taking out the plazas, including their logistics, transportation, precursors, and cut off weapons going into Mexico.

For decades, U.S. officials have gone after the heads of the cartels, but this strategy is not just about the heads of the plazas, Miller said. “It’s about access to the U.S. It’s about the precursors, it’s about the pill presses. It’s about the supply chains and our seaports, our ports of entry, it’s about bringing in the state and locals to sure ensure that they have the same information.” 

“To give you an example, if there’s a seizure of fentanyl in Kansas, where did that photo come from?” Miller said. “It came across the southwest border. So as we continue to flatten out the information and figure out where and how fentanyl got across the southwest border, we can start to put the logistics together not only in Mexico, but the transnational criminal organization that’s operating in the U.S.” 

“So it’s about putting all the pieces together. Identifying those choke points and going after those choke points where it makes sense,” Miller said.