updated 5/27/2004 2:45:18 PM ET 2004-05-27T18:45:18

A recent dogfighting raid that led to the arrests of about 20 people represents just one small part of a widespread criminal activity carried out by a secretive network of insiders.

"It's really a nationwide underground," Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics spokesman Mark Woodward said. The arrests so far in Oklahoma are "just the tip of the iceberg."

The arrests came in and around Holdenville, about 80 miles southeast of Oklahoma City, after a 17-month investigation that began with a probe of illegal drugs. This was the largest crackdown on dog fighting ever in Oklahoma.

Dogfighting, illegal in every state, is so secretive that even to subscribe to dogfighting magazines you have to be "sponsored" by someone already known on the inside, investigators said. Getting into dogfights can be even dicier.

"They are very skeptical about who anybody is," Woodward said. "New faces make them nervous."

At the fights, dozens of men, women and children, many wearing T-shirts depicting dogs with blood dripping from their mouths, gather around a plywood arena to scream, gamble and have a good time.

The combatants are washed to remove any traces of poison on their skin that could kill or disable an opponent.

Then handlers enter the ring with their dogs.

Two dogs, usually pit bull terriers, face off in various weight categories _ with the loser often being killed after a fight.

To guard their secrecy, sponsors converse in a kind of "code" on Web sites, investigators said. Fight locations can change at a moment's notice, and they are often marked with colored balloons and even signs like "Birthday Party Here" to give a cover for large gatherings of cars.

Eventually, two undercover state narcotics agents and one from the veterinary board infiltrated this underworld. During some events, while those agents were inside, Jay Carroll and two other agents with Hughes County District Attorney William N. Peterson's office hid outside.

"We were watching everything," Carroll said.

At one event, undercover agents followed a dog handler outside. "Hey, don't shoot that dog," Carroll said the agents told the handler, who was about to dispose of his dog because it was injured and had lost. "We'll buy that dog."

The spared animal became evidence for the investigation.

___

Information from: The Oklahoman, http://www.oklahoman.com

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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