WASHINGTON, Oct 23 – In the largest ever crackdown on a Mexican drug cartel in the United States, law enforcement agencies said Thursday they had arrested 303 people and seized tonnes of narcotics in two days of raids.
The massive operation saw more than 3,000 federal agents and police officers deployed across 19 US states as part of the longer-running "Project Coronado," which has netted nearly 1,200 suspects since 2005.
"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," said US Attorney General Eric Holder.
US President Barack Obama and his Mexican counterpart, Felipe Calderon, have vowed to cooperate against deadly drug cartels.
But despite deploying 50,000 troops in a nationwide crackdown on drug gangs, Calderon has so far failed to stem Mexico’s spiraling drug violence that has killed some 14,000 people since late 2006.
La Familia controls drug production and distribution in the southwestern Mexican state of Michoacan and from there ships vast quantities of cocaine and methamphetamine to the United States, US officials say. They singled it out as particularly sophisticated and ruthless.
The pseudo-Christian, cult-like drug organization made a dramatic entrance in Mexico in 2006 when its members rolled five decapitated heads onto a dance floor at a nightclub.
"The sheer level and depravity of violence that this cartel has exhibited far exceeds what we unfortunately have become accustomed to from other cartels," Holder told reporters.
"By seizing their drugs and upending their supply chains, we have disrupted their business-as-usual state of operations."
Since Coronado began, US authorities have seized 32 million dollars in cash, over 2,700 pounds (1,225 kilograms) of methamphetamine, nearly 4,410 pounds (2,000 kilograms) of cocaine, 13 kilograms (29 pounds) of heroin and some 16,000 pounds (7,257 kilograms) of marijuana.
Nearly 400 weapons were seized in the past two days alone.
"These are drugs that were headed for our streets, and weapons that often were headed for the streets of Mexico," Holder said, noting that arrests were ongoing.
La Familia’s operations "reach far into the United States," he added, calling the gang the "most violent" of the five main Mexican drug cartels.
"Today, we have all taken a step forward to disrupt a group that hides behind a shield of ideology while terrorizing communities in Mexico and peddling drugs in our neighborhoods here in the United States," said FBI Director Robert Mueller.
Drug trafficking between the United States and its southern neighbor "is not a one-country problem, and solving it will take more than a one-country solution," said Holder, who praised the Mexican government’s "heroic" effort to combat the violence.
Holder cautioned that "no one strike is going to bring an immediate end to the cartels," but said "these sustained, direct blows to the heart of cartel operations in the United States are making a difference."
Mexican police meanwhile announced they had arrested alleged La Familia hitmen Jose Roberto de la Sancha, alias "El Chivo" (the goat), and Juan Estrada, who goes by the name "Charmin."
Mexico has complained that weapons from the United States are helping fuel the brutal drug war.
In a criminal complaint filed in Dallas, Texas, US federal investigators charged that La Familia operatives shipped hundreds of firearms from the United States to Mexico in the past year.
The US Treasury Department meanwhile blacklisted six people and one company for their ties to the Tijuana drug cartel and froze any assets they may have in the United States.
It was the fourth Mexican cartel to be sanctioned under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act this year.
In the latest legal challenge to La Familia, a New York grand jury indicted alleged cartel chief Servando Gomez-Martinez and three other gang members on charges of conspiracy to import cocaine and methamphetamine.
They face at least 10 years in prison and a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
Thursday announcement also comes a day after a Miami judge sentenced Colombian drug kingpin Diego Montoya to 45 years in prison on murder and racketeering charges.
Much of the cocaine transported by Mexican cartels to the United States comes from Colombia.