Crackdown against drug cartel yields 300 U.S. arrests in 2 days

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WASHINGTON — Drug agents swept through Los Angeles and
dozens of other locations Wednesday and Thursday, arresting more than 300
people and large quantities of drugs, weapons and money in what federal law
enforcement officials said was the culmination of the biggest U.S. crackdown
ever undertaken against a Mexican drug cartel.

The months-long offensive, the fruit of dozens of federal
investigations over the past three and a half years, will put a significant
dent in the U.S. operations of La Familia Michoacana, one of Mexico’s most
aggressively expanding, deadly — and unusual — drug trafficking 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 1/8and3/8 the toxic reach of its operations extends to
nearly every state within our own country,” Attorney General Eric H.
Holder Jr. said at a news conference held to announce the arrests. “And
that’s why we’re hitting them where we believe it hurts the most: their revenue
stream. 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,” a multi-agency effort to dismantle the organization’s vast
methamphetamine and cocaine distribution network in the United States.

But Holder and other officials also conceded that like a
handful of other cartels, La Familia has become too powerful, too entrenched
within the political and economic fabric of Mexico — and too popular with
Mexico’s citizens — for the arrests to deal the cartel any kind of death blow.

“To the extent that they do grow back, I think, 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 — indict them, try them — either in
Mexico or extradite them to the United States,” Holder said.

For that to happen, however, 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, several of
La Familia’s top leaders have been indicted recently in U.S. courts And few, if
any, have been taken into custody by Mexican authorities. La Familia has been
linked to hundreds of drug-related killings in Mexico, including the kidnapping
and torture and murders of 12 federal agents in the western state of Michoacan,
La Familia’s home base.

Several senior drug officials said Mexico is cooperating,
but that La Familia’s leaders are too well-insulated to go after, protected not
only by their own private army but also by corrupt local police and
politicians. “It’s a full-blown military operation to go in and get
them,” said one, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the
sensitivity of U.S.-Mexico counternarcotics relations.

A Mexican counter-narcotics official agreed, saying his
country has thrown thousands of troops and police at La Familia, but that they
are even more elusive than most cartel chieftains.

“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.”

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

La Familia now competes with the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels,
but in an unusual twist, its leaders espouse a religious philosophy and ask the
core members of the organization to carry Bibles and attend church. They also
manufacture tons of methamphetamine strictly for export to the United States,
prohibiting their own soldiers from using illegal drugs or selling them within
their own borders, 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 provided a rare look
inside a highly disciplined and secretive organization that uses violence to
support its narcotics trafficking business — including numerous murders,
kidnappings and assaults, federal authorities said. It also has diversified
into counterfeiting, extortion, prostitution and armed robbery. Most of those
arrested in the United States were believed to be foot-soldiers or associates
of the organization, but some of them had direct ties back to La Familia
leadership in Michoacan, authorities said.

Federal prosecutors in Los Angeles have indicted five
suspected La Familia members, with the help of several undercover informants.
One of them is Gerardo Rodriguez-Lopez,a fugitive who authorities allege ran a
methamphetamine-smuggling operation from Mexico through Los Angeles County to
Minnesota, Kansas, Georgia and Texas.

Overall, the DEA said at least 24 individuals were arrested
in Southern California during the raids, many of them La Familia members or
associates from three separate drug distribution cells.

Over the past two days, federal and local authorities
arrested 90 people in Dallas and dozens more in Atlanta and other large urban
hubs for La Familia.

But many other arrests occurred in small towns and rural
communities in Washington state, Texas, California, Oklahoma, Missouri, North
Carolina and elsewhere.

Via McClatchy-Tribune News Services.

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