Image: ICE agent in a drug tunnel
Gregory Bull  /  AP file
A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent walks in a tunnel which authorities say was used to carry drugs into the United States to an Otay Mesa warehouse on Dec. 2, 2010, in San Diego. On Tuesday, ICE agents, working with state and local authorities in 168 cities, made 678 arrests from December to February in an effort dubbed "Project Southern Tempest," ICE Director John Morton said.
updated 3/1/2011 3:44:13 PM ET 2011-03-01T20:44:13

Immigration agents have arrested more than 600 gang members with ties to drug smugglers in the past three months, the largest such roundup since 1965, Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Tuesday.

ICE agents, working with state and local authorities in 168 cities, made 678 arrests from December to February in an effort dubbed "Project Southern Tempest," ICE Director John Morton said.

The latest roundup is part of a more than 5-year-old effort aimed at U.S. street gangs with ties to Mexican drug cartels and other drug traffickers.

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Morton said Tuesday that nearly half those arrested in the last three months were also connected to street gangs with known ties to violent drug cartels in Mexico. Those cartels are battling each other and the government in Mexico in a struggle that has killed more than 35,000 people since Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched an offensive against the drug gangs shortly after taking office in late 2006.

Federal authorities have announced the results of more than half a dozen such operations in the last 2½ years and touted them as blows to Mexican drug gangs. But an Associated Press review of those sweeps last year showed that the arrests have done little to stymie the drug trade or do more than inconvenience the major Mexican-based cartels.

ICE officials did not identify all of the gang members arrested or say which cartels they or their respective gangs were aligned with. But Morton said 13 gangs whose members were caught up in the latest operation are connected to the cartels. As a group, he said, the gangs have ties to all of Mexico's cartels.

All told, members of 133 gangs were arrested.

Morton said 447 suspects face criminal charges, while 231 people were arrested on administrative immigration charges.

The announcement of the arrests comes less than a week after agents from ICE, the Drug Enforcement Administration and other federal, state and local authorities launched a nationwide search for suspects with ties to Mexican cartels.

DEA officials said that effort, which netted more than 650 arrests, was a direct domestic response to the Feb. 15 killing of ICE Special Agent Jaime Zapata in a roadside ambush along a Mexican highway.

The arrests announced Tuesday, Morton said, were not part that response.

"We're pursuing gangs because they are involved in violent crimes affecting our communities in a big way," Morton said.

He added that U.S. authorities have made it clear they will continue to target cartel members working in the United States and street gangs aligned with those drug organizations.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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