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Marijuana seized, 55 held in Mexico

President's crackdown aims to break up a turf war among drug gangs.

December 19, 2006|Sam Enriquez | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Mexican government officials said Monday that they had destroyed 600 acres of marijuana plants and seized more than 6 tons of harvested pot during a crackdown by federal police and the military in the state of Michoacan.

Authorities also announced the arrest of 55 suspected drug traffickers in Operation Michoacan United, President Felipe Calderon's first effort to make good on his promise to combat a turf war among drug gangs that has claimed about 2,000 lives nationwide this year.

The heads of the Mexican army, navy and federal police said during a news conference that a combination of air surveillance, searches and random inspections of more than 8,000 vehicles at roadblocks over the last week also turned up 112 weapons, 300 pounds of marijuana seeds and 17 pounds of opium poppy seeds.

Officials said bulk marijuana sells for slightly less than $900 a pound at the U.S.-Mexico border, and they valued the seized marijuana at more than $10 million. Defense Secretary Guillermo Galvan said the 600 acres of plants could have yielded as much as $400 million.

News media were kept away from the operation, but government video shows soldiers pulling up foot-high plants, as well as aerial shots of small plots in the middle of natural vegetation. One shot shows plants with long spirals of mature seedpods swaying in the wash of a low-flying military helicopter.

The seizures and arrests struck at Michoacan drug gangs that are allegedly allied with the Gulf cartel. Members and associates of the cartel are locked in a war with the Pacific Coast-based Sinaloa cartel over market share and smuggling routes.

The fight for control of Nuevo Laredo, a major trucking and shipping link with Texas, has cost hundreds of lives over the last two years and triggered proxy battles among warring factions in other states.

Government officials worry the violence of Nuevo Laredo will spread to nearby Monterrey, a key commercial and industrial city. Calderon has promised to advance Mexico by attracting new investments that will create jobs.

Interior Secretary Francisco Ramirez Acuna said the anti-drug operation "reveals the government's will in using all the country's strength to recover the peace and tranquillity of society."

Michoacan, Calderon's home state, is a key transport area for marijuana and cocaine and, more recently, methamphetamine, which moves north into the United States in amounts that drug experts estimate make up a significant chunk of the multibillion-dollar market. The federal operation will continue.

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sam.enriquez@latimes.com

Carlos Martinez of The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.

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