WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. authorities capped a nearly two-year campaign against one of Mexico’s most violent drug cartels with 52 arrests on Wednesday, and said they had crippled its U.S. distribution network.
The arrests in California, Maryland and Minnesota brought to 755 the total charged in the United States under “Operation XCellerator” that began in May 2007 and was aimed at Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, authorities said.
The cartel is a leading combatant in the violent battles in Mexico for control of Mexican trafficking operations.
The turf wars killed more than 6,000 people there last year and sparked fears of spillover violence in the United States, despite Mexican President Felipe Calderon sending thousands of troops to crush the gangs. Washington has also pledged $1.6 billion in military equipment and training assistance to Mexico over three years.
“They are a national-security threat,” Attorney General Eric Holder said of the cartels. “They are lucrative. They are violent. And they are operated with stunning planning and precision.”
The operation was the third major strike against Mexican cartels and the second against the Sinaloa group, officials said. “These cartels will be destroyed,” Holder told a news conference.
The operation targeted some 70 U.S. distribution hubs and cells in 26 U.S. states, in cities ranging from Los Angeles to tiny Stow, Ohio, Michele Leonhart, acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, told reporters. It began with the discovery of a cell in California’s Imperial Valley, authorities said.
More than 12,000 kilograms (26,460 pounds) of cocaine were seized in total, along with 16,000 pounds of marijuana, 1,200 pounds of methamphetamine and 1.3 million Ecstasy pills.
Over roughly the same time, U.S. cocaine prices have more than doubled and purity has fallen by more than one-third — both measures of cocaine scarcity, Leonhart said. Methamphetamine prices also have risen.
She said distribution networks in Mexico and Canada were also crippled. “They’ve been hit hard,” Leonhart said of the Sinaloa traffickers.
Suspects indicted in the operation faced charges of racketeering, drug smuggling, money laundering and illegal weapons possession, officials said.
But the cartel violence shows no signs of easing. The cartels are believed to use profits from U.S. drug sales to buy weapons in the United States and smuggle them to Mexico, where they increase the drug wars’ lethality.
Holder said the Obama administration would push for renewing a U.S. ban on assault rifles, but the timing was uncertain. “I think that will have a positive impact in Mexico, at a minimum,” he said.
The ban expired during the Bush administration under heavy pressure from U.S. gun-rights advocates, who pressed Holder on the issue during his confirmation hearings.
The Sinaloa cartel, based in the northwestern Mexican state of the same name, split in two rival groups last year. One faction is headed by Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman, Mexico’s most wanted criminal, and the other is led by his former enforcers, the Beltran Leyva brothers.
The drug war started around four years ago when Guzman tried to take over territory in northeastern Mexico belonging to the rival Gulf cartel. The Sinaloans were eventually expelled.
Additional reporting by Alistair Bell, editing by Philip Barbara