WASHINGTON — The Justice Department announced Wednesday that authorities had arrested more than 730 people across the country in a 21-month investigation targeting Mexico's Sinaloa drug cartel and its infiltration into U.S. cities.
The arrests, including 50 on Wednesday in California, Minnesota, Maryland and the nation's capital, come amid growing concern in Washington that Mexican crime organizations are out of control and threaten the stability of parts of Mexico and the safety of U.S. citizens.
The Homeland Security Department has developed a plan to send more agents and other resources, and possibly military support, to the U.S.-Mexico border if the drug violence continues to spill over and overwhelm the agents stationed there, a department official confirmed.
The Pentagon is looking into a larger role in bolstering counter-narcotics efforts. Adm. Dennis C. Blair, the director of national intelligence, told Congress on Wednesday that the corruptive influence and increasing violence of the cartels had undermined the Mexican government's ability to govern parts of its country.
A recent State Department travel advisory warned U.S. citizens about the perils of travel in Mexico, likening the shootouts between authorities and the cartels to "small-unit combat." The U.S. National Drug Intelligence Center believes that Mexican cartels maintain drug distribution networks or supply drugs to distributors in as many as 195 U.S. cities.
And on Wednesday, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, said the recent surge in drug-related violence on the Southwest border "has turned some American communities and neighborhoods into the Wild West."
"A battle is building on the border, and U.S. citizens are getting caught in the crossfire," Smith said, calling on House Democrats to hold a hearing on drug-related violence on the border. "Congress must address the violence before more lives are lost."
U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., in his first news conference since taking over as the nation's top law enforcement officer, offered this as proof of the creeping spread of the Sinaloa cartel in the United States: the seizure of more than $59 million in illegal drug proceeds and large amounts of narcotics, including more than 24,000 pounds of cocaine, 1,200 pounds of methamphetamine and 1.3 million ecstasy pills.
Authorities also seized more than $6.5 million in other assets, 149 vehicles, three aircraft, three maritime vessels and 169 weapons.
"The dimensions of what we are breaking up today had nationwide implications here" in the United States, Holder said.
Special Agent Michele Leonhart, acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said the crackdown had denied at least $1 billion in drug revenue for the Sinaloa cartel, one of several syndicates fighting the Mexican government in a war that claimed the lives of more than 5,000 people in Mexico last year.
About 20 suspects have been arrested in Mexico as part of the crackdown, which has been coordinated by the DEA's Special Operations Division in close cooperation with Mexico and dozens of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies in the United States.
Holder and top DEA officials said most, if not all, of the senior members of the cartel remained at large.
Mexican authorities Wednesday extradited the former leader of a separate cartel accused of smuggling tons of marijuana and cocaine into the United States during the 1980s and 1990s.
The suspect, Miguel Caro Quintero, headed the so-called Sonora cartel and faces federal drug-trafficking charges in Arizona and Colorado. He is the brother of Rafael Caro Quintero, a kingpin who was convicted and sentenced in Mexico for the 1985 killing of a U.S. drug agent, Enrique Camarena.
Holder said he had met with Mexican Atty. Gen. Eduardo Medina Mora on Tuesday to discuss how the two countries could cooperate to dismantle drug-trafficking organizations and root out corrupt government officials on both sides of the border.
"International drug-trafficking organizations pose a sustained, serious threat. They are national security threats," Holder said. "They are lucrative, they are violent and they are operated with stunning planning and precision."
Some federal law enforcement officials said the results of the investigation were being announced, at least in part, to address growing accusations that some senior elements of the Mexican government are aiding Sinaloa drug dealers or selectively going after competitors, allowing factions of the Sinaloa cartel to grow. Major corruption arrests in Mexico recently showed that a Sinaloa faction had paid senior officials in the Mexican attorney general's office to notify it about impending enforcement actions.
A senior DEA official said top Mexican authorities were working closely with Washington to assess the damage from potential leaks from law enforcement officials, and to prevent them from happening.