March 19, 2010 in Nation/World

Hundreds of U.S. agents investigating slayings

Mexican officials suspect cross-border street gang
Marisa Taylor McClatchy
Associated Press photo

Soldiers stand in line during the burning of more than two tons of seized marijuana and cocaine in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juarez on Thursday.
(Full-size photo)

WASHINGTON – More than 200 U.S. agents began questioning alleged members of a notorious El Paso, Texas, gang Thursday in an effort to gather clues in the shooting deaths of three people connected to a U.S. consulate in Mexico.

The roundup, dubbed Operation Knock Down, came as Mexican authorities announced they suspected there was a link between the gang and the murders. U.S. officials, however, said they still didn’t know the motive, although they don’t think nationality was a factor. Authorities had interviewed about 100 gang members by Thursday afternoon.

The gang, which operates as the Barrio Azteca on the U.S. side of the border and the Aztecas on the Mexican side, is a “very significant transnational street gang,” said Andrea Simmons, a spokeswoman for the FBI.

The state attorney general’s office in Chihuahua, Mexico, said it has established a possible connection between the Aztecas gang and the murders based on “information exchanged with U.S. federal agencies.”

The gang, which recruits from within the U.S. prison system, is thought to be allied with the Juarez drug cartel, a sophisticated trafficking operation believed to be run by Carrillo Fuentes’ family.

The sweep also was aimed at gathering information about one of the gang’s reputed leaders, Eduardo Ravelo.

Ravelo, also known in gang circles as “2x4” or “Lumberman,” is on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List and is charged with racketeering, money laundering, heroin possession and cocaine and marijuana trafficking.

Authorities describe the Barrio Azteca as contractors for the Juarez drug cartel, acting as hit men on the cartel’s behalf and engaged in shipping drugs.

Ravelo, who has ties to both border cities, may have had plastic surgery and altered his fingerprints, according to the FBI’s Web site.

The shooting deaths Saturday have shaken Ciudad Juarez, the Mexican border town where drug slayings have become routine and the killing of innocent bystanders more common.

President Felipe Calderon has dispatched troops to hot spots like Juarez to try to contain the violence. Drug cartel leaders, meanwhile, have hit back with widespread kidnappings, murders and beheadings.

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