Page last updated at 10:27 GMT, Thursday, 26 February 2009

US raids target Mexican drug gang


US Attorney General Eric Holder on the arrests of drug cartel suspects

A major crackdown on Mexican drug traffickers operating in the US has led to the arrest of 755 people, Attorney General Eric Holder has announced.

These included 52 people detained on Wednesday in California, Minnesota and Maryland in raids targeting the powerful Sinaloa cartel.

The 21-month operation involved US, Mexican and Canadian authorities.

A 2008 justice department report found Mexican traffickers were the biggest organised crime threat to the US.

Money seized during Operation Xcellerator. Photo DEA
Operation Xcellerator was carried out across the US

Most of the cocaine available in the US is smuggled via the US-Mexican border, while Mexican drug traffickers control most of the US drug market.

Announcing the arrests, Mr Holder described the cartels as a threat to US national security.

"They are lucrative. They are violent. And they are operated with stunning planning and precision, " he said.

As well as 755 arrests, Operation Xcellerator led to the seizure of :

  • money totalling $59.1m (41.5m)
  • 23 tonnes of narcotics, including 12,000 kg cocaine, 7,257 kg of marijuana, 544 kg of methamphetamines and 1.3m Ecstasy pills
  • 149 vehicles, three aircraft, 3 maritime vessels
  • 169 weapons

"We successfully concluded the largest and hardest hitting operation to ever target the very violent and dangerously powerful Sinaloa drug cartel," said Michele Leonhart, acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

"From Washington to Maine, we have disrupted this cartel's domestic operations, arresting US cell heads and stripping them of $59m in cash."

She said the investigation had uncovered a "super meth lab that is so sophisticated that we've seen none like it anywhere" and drug factory machines able to produce 12,000 ecstasy tablets an hour.

Operation Xcellerator had also disrupted the gang's operations in Canada, Ms Leonhart said.

US officials say that over the past two years the street price of cocaine has more than doubled and purity fallen.

Turf wars

The Sinaloa cartel is one of four main Mexican drug-trafficking gangs, the others being the Gulf cartel, the Tijuana cartel and the Juarez cartel.

Turf wars led to the deaths of some 6,000 people last year as the traffickers fought each other and the authorities, and Mexican media say so far this year there have been around 1,000 drug-related murders.

Mexican army soldiers and federal police guard the perimeter around the site where the Interior secretary and members of the federal security cabinet are gathered to discuss the ongoing wave of violence in the border state of Chihuahua
Mexico has deployed some 40,000 troops to tackle the drug gangs

Mr Holder told reporters he was concerned that drug violence from Mexico could spill over to the US.

"The problems that Mexico faces are also problems that we face," he said.

Mr Holder said the Obama administration would push for reinstating a ban on assault weapons.

This has been a long-standing request of the Mexican government which says guns smuggled over the border constitute a major threat to Mexico's security.

Echoing the growing concern about the drug-related violence in Mexico, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told a congressional committee on Wednesday it had become one of her top priorities.

"Mexico right now has issues of violence that are of a different degree and level than we've ever seen before," she said.

The US Congress has authorised the spending of $1.6bn (1.1bn) dollars to confront the threat of drug trafficking and organised crime from Mexico and Central America.

So far, $197m (138m) has been released for military and law enforcement training and equipment in Mexico.

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