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Probe of Mexican drug cartel leads to hundreds of U.S. arrests

Authorities say recent raids have targeted La Familia Michoacana's fast-growing operations in California, Texas and other states.

October 23, 2009|Josh Meyer

WASHINGTON — Drug agents swept through Los Angeles and dozens of other locations Wednesday and Thursday, arresting more than 300 people and seizing large quantities of drugs, weapons and money in the biggest U.S. crackdown against a Mexican drug cartel.

The months-long offensive, the fruit of dozens of federal investigations over the last 3 1/2 years, will put a significant dent in the U.S. operations of La Familia Michoacana, one of Mexico's fastest-growing and deadliest cartels, authorities said.

"The sheer level and depravity of violence that this cartel has exhibited far exceeds what we unfortunately have become accustomed to from other cartels, [and] the toxic reach of its operations extends to nearly every state within our own country," Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said at a news conference in Washington to announce the arrests.

The investigation has involved hundreds of agents and analysts from the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, as well as prosecutors and other officials from the Justice Department.

"We're hitting them where we believe it hurts the most: their revenue stream," Holder said. "By seizing their drugs and upending their supply chains, we have disrupted their business-as-usual state of operations."

In all, authorities have arrested nearly 1,200 suspected La Familia members or associates in recent months as part of "Project Coronado," the multi-agency effort to dismantle the organization's methamphetamine and cocaine distribution network in the United States.

But Holder and other officials acknowledged that La Familia has become too powerful, too politically entrenched -- and too popular with Mexico's citizens -- for the arrests to deal the cartel any kind of death blow.

"We have to work with our Mexican counterparts to really cut off the heads of these snakes and get at the heads of the cartels . . . either in Mexico or extradite them to the United States," he said.

For that to happen, U.S. authorities need the full cooperation of the Mexican government in arresting and prosecuting the leaders of La Familia. But according to court documents unsealed Thursday, few if any leaders have been taken into custody by Mexican authorities despite several being indicted in U.S. courts.

La Familia has been linked to hundreds of drug-related killings in Mexico, including the kidnapping, torture and killing of 12 federal agents in the western state of Michoacan, La Familia's home base.

Several senior U.S. drug officials said Mexico was cooperating but that La Familia's leaders were too well insulated to go after, protected not only by their own army but by corrupt police and politicians.

"It's a full-blown military operation to go in and get them," said one drug enforcement official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of U.S.-Mexico counter-narcotics relations.

A Mexican counter-narcotics official agreed, saying his country had thrown thousands of troops and police at La Familia but that the cartel's chieftains were even more elusive than others.

"They rarely spend two or three nights in the same place, and when they do, they live in these very fortified compounds," said the official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing similar sensitivities. "It is even more difficult for us because they buy not only information, but they buy protection from the very guys that are supposed to get them."

Although a relative newcomer to Mexico's drug underworld, La Familia has quickly become one of the most violent, quick to attack Mexican troops and lawmakers who have tried to halt its expansion, U.S. counter-narcotics officials said.

La Familia now competes with the established Gulf and Sinaloa cartels. But in an unusual twist, its leaders espouse a religious philosophy, asking core members to carry Bibles and attend church.

The cartel manufactures tons of methamphetamine strictly for export to the United States, prohibiting its own soldiers from using illegal drugs or selling them in Mexico, said Michele Leonhart, acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Such tactics have made La Familia something of a Robin Hood-type organization within Mexico, several drug enforcement officials said Thursday.

"We are fighting an organization whose brutal violence is driven by so-called divine justice," Leonhart said. "Accordingly, La Familia's narco-banner declared that they don't kill for money and they don't kill innocent people. However, their delivery of that message was accompanied by five severed heads rolled onto a dance floor in Uruapan, Mexico."

The indictments unsealed Thursday provide a rare look inside the highly disciplined and secretive organization, which is also involved in counterfeiting, extortion, prostitution and armed robbery.

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