Reporting from Washington — In what was billed as the largest U.S. dragnet in the war on drugs from the Southwest border, senior federal law enforcement officials said Thursday that they had arrested more than 2,200 people including a top Mexican cartel leader, seized nearly 75 tons of drugs and confiscated $154 million in cash.
The massive takedown, dubbed "Project Deliverance" and executed around the United States, was hailed as part of a nearly two-year, multi-agency operation in the Obama administration's effort to fight Mexican drug trafficking operations.
It remains to be seen, however, what effect the dragnet will have on violence along the border, where Mexicans are being killed in record numbers.
Top federal law enforcement authorities called it a major attempt at striking back.
"Project Deliverance inflicted a debilitating blow to the network of shadow facilitators and transportation cells controlled by the major Mexican drug cartels," said Michele Leonhart, acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, describing how hundreds of cars, buses and trucks have been stopped with cash and drugs hidden in gas tanks, air bags and behind trapdoors.
Leonhart said a main focus of the raids and arrests was to "target the transportation networks" of the cartels moving drugs, guns and money, and to identify new smuggling techniques.
"There were a number of things that opened our eyes," Leonhart said, such as how heroin is being smuggled into the U.S. in vehicles in bulk and not by individual couriers.
Large arrests have been staged in the past, and cartel leaders have been extradited to the U.S. and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. But in the past, the arrests only ended up frustrating U.S. authorities because younger, more violent cartel leaders immediately stepped into the breach.
This time, however, with the scope of Project Deliverance, which included 3,000 agents arresting 429 people in 16 states on Wednesday alone, U.S. officials hope they may be getting an upper hand.
As an example, they highlighted the arrest of Carlos Ramon Castro-Rocha, alleged leader of the violent smuggling operation that carries his name.
Castro-Rocha, also known as "Cuate," or "the Twin," was named in a six-count federal grand jury indictment unsealed this week in Arizona after his arrest May 30 in Mexico. The indictment alleges that last year Castro-Rocha, 36, and his organization based in Sinaloa, Mexico, were major distributors of heroin in the U.S.
About 45 pounds of black-tar heroin, with a street value of about $2.2 million, was seized from his organization in Arizona, officials said.
Castro-Rocha was arrested by Mexican authorities at the request of U.S. officials, and his extradition to Arizona is pending. He faces a maximum of $4 million in fines and a sentence of life in prison.
"Without question," said Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., "these arrests and seizures will disrupt drug cartel operations and impact the ability of traffickers to move narcotics into the United States."
Holder noted that Mexican officials had assisted the U.S. in organizing the dragnet, and said that they were "waging a courageous battle against drug cartels within their own borders" and that "we continue to stand by them and work with them."
He added, "We are striking at the heart of criminal smuggling operations."