Gang arrests a blow to Mexican cartels' reach north of the border

Project Southern Tempest netted 678 gang members connected to international drug syndicates. It's a sign that the US is trying to help in the war against Mexican cartels.

Nelvin C. Cepeda/San Diego Union-Tribune/Reuters
John Morton (l.), director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), looks at blocks of marijuana inside a warehouse near the Mexican border in California Nov. 3, 2010. Morton announced arrests in a sweep of US drug gangs Tuesday.

As the wars against drug cartels rage in Mexico, US immigration and customs officials on Tuesday sought to show that they are doing their part to choke the drug trade north of the border, too.

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents announced the results of Project Southern Tempest, their latest gang sweep in 168 American cities from Atlanta to South Salt Lake, Utah. The tally: 678 gang members with affiliations to 133 different gangs arrested during the past two weeks.

Project Southern Tempest is part of ICE's Operation Community Shield, a five-year fight that unites federal, state, and local law enforcement against gangs with ties to international drug syndicates – primarily those in Mexico. Southern Tempest notched the 20,000th arrest of the program.

It is a message to Mexican officials that the US trying to hold up its end of the bargain. "A Mexican criticism that we hear is, 'Why isn't the US doing more to fight the cartels north of the border?' " says David Shirk, director of the Transborder Institute at the University of California-San Diego.

Project Southern Tempest shows that "is exactly what ICE and other US government agencies are trying to do," he adds.

ICE director John Morton sought to emphasize this point. The "intensity couldn't be higher," Mr. Morton said. Among the American gangs linked to the international drug trade and targeted by ICE: MS-13, Latin Kings, The Bloods, and Jamaican Posse.

The problem for ICE, however, is that it can't control the fundamental driver of the entire equation: American demand for illegal drugs. These gang members "are breaking the law and are a threat to US communities, but ... in the end, you can arrest people all day long, and as long as the market demand remains strong there will be new entrepreneurs who rise to satisfy that demand," says Mr. Shirk of the Transborder Institute.

For their part, law-enforcement officials said during a Project Southern Tempest teleconference Tuesday that they were grateful for ICE efforts. For instance, US Attorney Sally Yates of Georgia described ICE's assistance in bringing to justice 26 MS-13 gang members in the Atlanta area, including a group of carjackers who hit a young girl with a baseball bat while trying to steal a PT Cruiser.

"These people are up to the worst sort of violent crimes in the communities they live in," said Morton. "These guys aren't in book clubs, they're in violent street gangs."

The ambush killing of an ICE agent, Jaime Zapata, in Mexico on Feb. 15 raised the concern that Mexican drug gangs have radicalized to the point that they no longer fear what Morton called America's "long hard arm of the law."

Though Morton said Mr. Zapata's shooting did not appear have a direct connection to Project Southern Tempest, ICE has agents in 47 countries supporting Operation Community Shield. ICE arrested three men in Dallas on Monday in connection with Zapata's murder.

Morton said ICE remains undeterred. The agency, he said, expects to make more arrest announcements soon, all in the attempt to help the Mexican government shorten the reach of the cartels.

"We'll do everything we can to bring the cartels down," Morton said. "It's not going to be easy, it's not going to solve everything overnight ... but just stay tuned."

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