WASHINGTON — In what prosecutors said was a significant step in fighting the drug wars raging on the U.S.-Mexico border, the Justice Department said Wednesday that 175 people believed to be connected with one of Mexico's most violent drug cartels were arrested this week in a dozen states.
The arrests Tuesday and Wednesday were part of a 15-month investigation led by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration targeting the drug trafficking organization known as the Gulf cartel. The group is a key target of Mexican President Felipe Calderon's 21-month offensive against drug mafias.
The Justice Department also unsealed indictments in federal court in Washington against three reputed cartel leaders who remain at large in Mexico.
"We believe these arrests are a substantial blow to the Gulf cartel," Atty. Gen. Michael B. Mukasey told reporters in Atlanta, a regional hub of the cartel where 43 arrests were made.
Officials said 66 people were picked up throughout Texas; four arrests were made in California.
The sweep targeted the cartel's infrastructure, including transportation routes and distribution cells.
Authorities also announced the arrests of 10 people associated with an organized crime group in the Calabria region of Italy and accused of trafficking cocaine supplied by the cartel through New York.
The Gulf cartel is believed to be responsible for trafficking tons of cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and marijuana from Central and South America into major U.S. cities and laundering tens of millions of dollars.
Based in the state of Tamaulipas on Mexico's Gulf Coast, the cartel is considered a driving force behind escalating violence in Mexico and along the U.S. border. The scale and ferocity of the violence have increased with Calderon's crackdown, as have clashes among various cartels.
So far, the investigation has resulted in 507 arrests and the seizure of about $60.1 million in U.S. currency, 36,841 pounds of cocaine, 1,039 pounds of methamphetamine, 19 pounds of heroin, 51,258 pounds of marijuana, 176 vehicles and 167 weapons. Those arrested include suspected heads of U.S. cells and alleged members or associates of the Zetas, a violent paramilitary wing of the Gulf cartel.
Since December 2006, Mexico has extradited 145 drug trafficking suspects to the United States, Mukasey said. U.S. authorities have praised Calderon for breaking with Mexico's traditional reluctance to send citizens to the U.S. to face charges.
More than a dozen figures were extradited in January 2007, including Osiel Cardenas, the former leader of the Gulf cartel, who is expected to stand trial next year on drug and conspiracy charges in federal court in Brownsville, Texas.
The federal indictments unsealed Wednesday in Washington targeted three fugitive alleged cartel leaders -- Cardenas' brother, Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen, and Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano and Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez. The men are all believed to be in Mexico and are considered priority targets for American and Mexican law enforcement authorities.