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U.S. arrests 22 in New Mexico, says they swapped stolen cars for drugs

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[June 27, 2014]  WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Twenty-two people were arrested on Thursday in New Mexico and charged with participation in a ring that stole luxury cars and swapped them for drugs from a Mexican cartel, authorities said.

The arrests were part of "Operation VIN-a-Palooza," a reference to the acronym for vehicle identification number. The operation involved local, state and federal agencies, Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in a statement.

The statement alleged that the ring was working for Mexico's Sinaloa cartel and was believed to have stolen hundreds of Hummers and other luxury vehicles from lots in Arizona, Utah, Oklahoma and New Mexico.

The vehicles were illegally shipped to Mexico in exchange for methamphetamine and heroin that was then trafficked throughout New Mexico, it said.

The arrests followed a 10-month investigation. Agents and officers also seized seven firearms as well as methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine.

About 34 luxury vehicles with an estimated value of $2 million have been recovered, the statement said.

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The defendants face state charges that include racketeering, stolen vehicles and money laundering. The investigation is ongoing and some defendants may face federal charges, it said.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by David Gregorio)

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