US strikes at Mexican cartel's drug-and-gun trade

A violent Mexican cartel, La Familia, is target of US raids. More than 300 arrested.

Jorge Dan/Reuters
Mexican federal police present suspected members of the Michoacan cartel known as "La Familia" at the federal police center in Mexico City, on Thursday.

Federal agents have launched a massive assault on the US-based distribution network of a major Mexican drug cartel in an effort to disrupt the flow of drugs into the US and the counter-flow of military-grade firearms to Mexico.

The cartel's network was heaviest in California and Texas, but it stretched across the nation to Boston, Seattle, even St. Paul, Minn.

The coast-to-coast take-down was aimed at La Familia Michoacana, Mexico's youngest cartel and one of its most violent.

"The sheer level of depravity of violence that this cartel has exhibited far exceeds what we unfortunately have become accustomed to from other cartels," said Attorney General Eric Holder in announcing the operation in Washington.

The operation, conducted on Wednesday and Thursday, featured raids in 19 states and 49 US cities. It is said to be the largest coordinated effort against a Mexican drug cartel in law-enforcement history.

Agents made 303 arrests and seized $3.4 million in cash, nearly 730 pounds of methamphetamine, 62 kilograms of cocaine, 967 pounds of marijuana, 144 weapons, and two clandestine drug labs.

"This operation has dealt a significant blow to La Familia's supply chain of illegal drugs, weapons, and cash flowing between Mexico and the United States," Attorney General Holder said. "The cartels should know that we here in the United States are not going to allow them to operate unfettered in our country."

The aggressive action is aimed at helping Mexican officials dismantle a growing and increasingly violent group of six criminal cartels.

La Familia Michoacana was organized in the 1980s as a marijuana production and distribution organization, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. The group reportedly served as a vigilante force to protect the local population from street crime and police corruption.

By 2006, La Familia emerged as one of the top five drug cartels in Mexico.

The group is lead by an executive council, and members share common and strong religious beliefs. Members are forbidden from using illegal narcotics themselves. According to the DEA, La Familia portrays itself as a kind of Mexican Robin Hood, taking from the rich (North Americans) and giving to the poor.

"They believe they are doing God's work, and pass out Bibles and money to the poor," the DEA report says. Local schools and officials also benefit, the report says.

But if law enforcement gets too close, La Familia reacts with extreme violence. When Mexican authorities arrested several key members of La Familia in June and July, the organization retaliated by kidnapping, torturing, and murdering 12 Mexican police officers.

In response, Mexico sent 5,500 soldiers to Michoacan.

"We are fighting an organization whose brutal violence is driven by so-called divine justice," said Michele Leonhart, acting DEA administrator. "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," Ms. Leonhart said.

Officials said La Familia had become a major supplier of methamphetamine in the US. The group reportedly refuses to sell the drug in Mexico and instead ships it to the US for sale. The cartel uses a portion of its drug proceeds to purchase high-powered military-style weapons in the US, which are then smuggled back into Mexico for use to protect its drug and other criminal operations, officials said.

Attorney General Holder said the US was working closely with Mexican authorities to arrest and prosecute the drug cartel leaders. "They are doing, I think, the best they can," Holder said of his Mexican counterparts.

He said the US would pursue the same strategy it used against organized crime. "What we learned in our fight against the Mafia is that you cut off the heads of these snakes," Holder said. "We want to bring those people north, if we can."

The arrests announced Thursday were part of a 44-month operation called Project Coronado. So far the effort has resulted in the arrests of 1,186 individuals and the seizure of $33 million in drug cash, nearly 2,000 kilograms of cocaine, 2,730 pounds of methamphetamine, 29 pounds of heroin, 16,390 pounds of marijuana, and 389 weapons.

The effort is a joint operation of the DEA, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Internal Revenue Service, US Customs, US Marshals Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.


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