WASHINGTON — Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft on Thursday announced indictments against the alleged leaders of one of Mexico's most powerful drug cartels, the Zambada-Garcia organization, which officials said funneled cocaine and marijuana into American cities and had ties to the 1985 killing of a U.S. undercover agent.
As part of the investigation of the drug ring, authorities arrested at least 67 suspected drug traffickers Thursday in the United States and Mexico, bringing to about 240 the number of people taken into custody during the 19-month, multinational inquiry dubbed Operation Trifecta.
During the operation, authorities seized almost six tons of cocaine, more than 12 tons of marijuana, 100 pounds of methamphetamine and more than $8 million.
The organization, based in the Mexican states of Sinaloa and Nayarit, sent drugs to U.S. cities including Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, authorities said. At a news conference Thursday, Ashcroft called the indictments and arrests a "significant victory against the purveyors of illegal drugs, death and violence."
Named in the indictment, which was returned by a federal grand jury in January but unsealed Thursday, were Ismael Zambada-Garcia, the alleged head of the drug ring; his top aide, lieutenant Javier Torres-Felix; Zambada-Garcia's son Vicente Zambada-Niebla; and Manuel Campas-Medina. Campas-Medina was arrested, and the other three remain at large "in Mexico or whereabouts unknown," said Justice Department spokesman Bryan Sierra.
The cartel is associated with a loose network of drug rings in Mexico, officials said. "They're aligned with nearly every cartel out there in Mexico," said Ed Childress, a special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration. Those links tie the cartel to the Guadalajara Cartel, which kidnapped and murdered DEA special agent Enrique Camarena in 1985.
"Operation Trifecta will have a significant impact on the movement of cocaine through Mexico and a significant impact on the sales of this drug in America's neighborhoods," said Michele Leonhart, a special agent from the DEA's Los Angeles division.
She added, "For many of us at DEA, it's especially satisfying to be able to cripple the source of this man's power and wealth."
Operation Trifecta was a collaboration among federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, including the FBI and the Los Angeles Police Department, and officials in Mexico and Colombia. It began in December 2001, when more than 10 tons of cocaine were seized from a fishing vessel, the Macel, off Mexico's Pacific coast.
The Zambada-Garcia organization received cocaine in ships from Colombian sources. It then transported the drugs in planes, trucks and cars to the U.S.-Mexico border, and smuggled the cocaine across the border to distributors in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York to be sold, according to the indictment.
Ashcroft highlighted the use of 90 search warrants -- including a delayed notification warrant -- and hundreds of wiretaps in the investigation, techniques protected under the USA Patriot Act anti-terrorism law that have drawn criticism from civil liberties groups.
"The American public should know that these tools that have allowed us to make gains in our war on drugs are the same tools that allow us to make gains in our war on terrorism," the attorney general said.
The indictment specifically alleges that the Zambada-Garcia organization delivered more than one ton, or $17 million, of cocaine to New York and New Jersey; almost two tons of cocaine, worth $30 million, to Chicago; and 50 pounds of cocaine, worth $391,000, to California.
Times staff writer Jesus Sanchez contributed to this report.