Largest US sting on drug cartel arrests 300-plus
By ELLIOT SPAGAT and SEAN MURPHY, Associated Press Writers Elliot Spagat And Sean Murphy, Associated Press Writers –
OKLAHOMA CITY – In the largest single strike at Mexican drug operations in the U.S., authorities arrested more than 300 people in a sting that demonstrates an upstart cartel's vast reach north of the border.
The tentacles of "La Familia" extend coast to coast and deep into America's heartland, with arrests announced Thursday in 38 cities from Boston to Seattle and from St. Paul, Minn., to Raleigh, N.C.
The Drug Enforcement Administration said the group is "philosophically opposed to the sale of methamphetamine to Mexicans, and instead supports its export to the United States for consumption by Americans."
One of the gang's alleged recruiters, detained last spring, ran drug rehabilitation centers, helping addicts to recover and then forcing them to work for the drug gang or be killed, according to Mexico Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna.
In the Inland Empire, a cluster of east Los Angeles suburbs where 25 people were arrested and 156 pounds of methamphetamine seized, most suspects are illegal immigrants from Mexico who came to the United States to work for La Familia, said Stephen Azzam, DEA assistant special agent in charge in Riverside, Calif.
Methamphetamine was shipped from the Inland Empire, an area with three interstate highways, to cities including Atlanta and Chicago, Azzam said.
La Familia is known as unusually violent, even by Mexico's standards.
After the arrest of one of its leaders in July in Mexico, the cartel launched an offensive against federal forces, killing 18 police officers and two soldiers over a weekend. In the worst attack, 12 federal agents were slain and their tortured bodies piled along a roadside as a warning for all to see.
"They are one of the most violent, if not the most violent, cartel in Mexico right now," said Michael Braun, who retired as the DEA's chief of operations last year.
La Familia operates methamphetamine "superlabs" in Mexico that produce up to 100 pounds of the drug in eight hours, a sharp contrast to small-time labs in the United States that have supplied American addicts, said Braun.
The organization was founded around 2004 and really took off in 2006, Braun said.
The arrests in places such as Atlanta, Dallas and Los Angeles suggest that its U.S. distribution network is sophisticated, said Scott Stewart, an analyst at the Stratfor consultancy in Austin, Texas, who follows the Mexican drug trade.
"Those are beautiful interstate (highway) hubs," Stewart said. "It's looking they have ramped up very quickly."