By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 23, 2009
U.S. authorities arrested 303 people Wednesday and Thursday in a nationwide sweep targeting the distribution network of La Familia, a fast-rising Mexican drug cartel known for its violence, messianic culture and control over the methamphetamine trade, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced Thursday.
More than 3,000 federal, state and local agents participated in the U.S. law enforcement operation, the largest mounted against a Mexican cartel, Holder said.
The raids “dealt a significant blow to La Familia’s supply chain,” Holder said, netting cash, drugs, weapons and vehicles in 19 states. But U.S. officials did not say whether any cartel leaders were caught. “With the increases in cooperation between U.S. and Mexican authorities in recent years, we are taking the fight to our adversaries,” Holder said.
Arrests took place in 38 cities, from Boston to Seattle, with 77 made in Dallas. The effort involved the Drug Enforcement Administration; the FBI; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Charges include drug and gun trafficking and money laundering.
Analysts said the operation appeared designed to allay skepticism among Mexico’s political leaders about the U.S. government’s commitment to Mexico’s crackdown on cartels. The drug-related violence has taken about 15,000 lives since President Felipe Calderón entered office in 2006. Mexican authorities have arrested 80,000 drug suspects, and Washington has responded with $1.4 billion in aid under the Merida initiative, but some in Mexico have grown frustrated with the U.S. market’s continuing demand for illegal drugs.
“Many Mexican leaders have viewed the Merida initiative as too little and too late,” said George W. Grayson, a Mexico specialist at the College of William and Mary who has written about La Familia, “and so Washington is trying to make clear that we are good faith, genuine partners in the war against drugs.”
La Familia, the newest of Mexico’s five major cartels, has become entrenched in many U.S. cities after flourishing in Mexico through entrepreneurial zeal, brutality and promises to spin drug profits into “divine justice,” or social benefits for its impoverished home state.
La Familia opposes the sale of methamphetamine to Mexicans, for example, but is responsible for the “vast majority” of the lucrative drug entering the United States from Mexico, said Michele M. Leonhart, acting DEA administrator.
The cartel, based in the southwestern Mexico state of Michoacan, has also benefited from a splintering of older cartels, and its effort to gain social legitimacy is combined with a savage program to kill, coerce and corrupt security and government personnel, Mexican analysts said.
In Washington, Holder said that U.S. authorities have targeted La Familia for 44 months. Under the effort, called Project Coronado, the federal government has arrested 1,186 people and seized $32.8 million, 2,710 pounds of methamphetamine, 1,999 kilograms of cocaine, 29 pounds of heroin, 16,390 pounds of marijuana, 389 weapons and 269 vehicles.
U.S. authorities indicted, but did not arrest, La Familia’s operational chief, Servando Gomez-Martinez — known as La Tuta.