By Keith Coffman
DENVER (Reuters) - U.S. federal agents have broken up a drug-trafficking ring that had ties to a Mexican drug cartel and used commercial trucks to move methamphetamine and money between California and Colorado, authorities said on Thursday.
A federal grand jury in Denver last week indicted 22 people in four states for drug trafficking and money laundering following an 18-month investigation by an organized crime strike force, law enforcement officials said.
The smugglers used "corrupt drivers" from a California trucking company to transport the drugs and illegal proceeds, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Denver said in a written statement.
"In one instance, the money was hidden in a truck load of milk ...(the gang) also used other means to send money back to California, including one instance were a minor had cash strapped to his body as he was being driven to California," the statement said.
All but two of those indicted are in custody, prosecutors said.
The indictment accuses the alleged ringleader, Armando Mendoza-Haro, of sending the ill-gotten cash to an unspecified Mexican drug cartel.
The gang allegedly tried to conceal the scheme by making small deposits in multiple banks to avoid reporting requirements, and then moving the money to overseas banks and back to California, the indictment said.
Agents seized 6 lbs of methamphetamine, more than $700,000 in cash, two tractor-trailers and a firearm in the probe.
Depending on each case, if convicted the defendants could get up to life in prison on the drug-trafficking charges, and up to 20 years on the money-laundering charges.
Prosecutors said they will also seek the forfeiture of any property proven to have been derived from the illegal operation.
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Lisa Shumaker)