WASHINGTON – Drug agents swept through Dallas, Los Angeles and dozens of other locations Wednesday and Thursday, arresting more than 300 people and seizing large quantities of drugs, weapons and money in the biggest U.S. crackdown against a Mexican drug cartel.
The months-long offensive, the fruit of dozens of federal investigations over three and a half years, will put a significant dent in the U.S. operations of La Familia Michoacana, one of Mexico’s fastest-growing and deadliest 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, (and) the toxic reach of its operations extends to nearly every state within our own country,” Attorney General Eric Holder said at a news conference in Washington to announce the arrests.
The investigation has involved hundreds of agents and analysts from the FBI; the Drug Enforcement Administration; and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, as well as prosecutors and other officials from the Justice Department.
“We’re hitting them where we believe it hurts the most: their revenue stream,” Holder said. “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,” the multi-agency effort to dismantle the organization’s methamphetamine and cocaine distribution network in the United States.
But Holder and other officials conceded that La Familia has become too powerful, too politically entrenched – and too popular with Mexico’s citizens – for the arrests to deal the cartel any kind of death blow.
“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 … either in Mexico or extradite them to the United States,” Holder said.
For that to happen, 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, few if any leaders have been taken into custody by Mexican authorities, despite several being indicted in U.S. courts.
La Familia has been linked to hundreds of drug-related killings in Mexico, including the kidnapping, torture and murders of 12 federal agents in the western state of Michoacan, La Familia’s home base.
Several senior U.S. 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 drug enforcement official.
The indictments unsealed Thursday provided a rare look inside the highly disciplined and secretive organization, which is also involved in 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 have direct ties to La Familia leadership in Michoacan, authorities said.
Over the past two days, federal and local authorities arrested 90 people in Dallas, at least 24 in Southern California 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.