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.
Drug deals went down in Oklahoma parking lots, suppliers were advised to weld drugs into tire rims for transport, and in the Dallas and Seattle areas, dozens of children were removed from houses where authorities found drugs, guns or cash derived from drug sales.
Perhaps more than any other cartel, La Familia projects a Robin Hood image. 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."
Mexican police say the gang uses religion and family morals to recruit. The gang has hung banners in towns saying they do not tolerate drug use, or attacks on women or children.
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.
La Familia is rarely mentioned in the same breath as the handful of other Mexican gangs that control the flow of drugs into the United States, fueled by Colombian cocaine suppliers. The Sinaloa, Juarez, Gulf and Tijuana cartels have roots that go back many years, even decades.
But in its short history, La Familia is believed to have emerged as the biggest supplier of methamphetamine to the United States and, increasingly, a peddler of cocaine, marijuana and other drugs.
Complaints that were unsealed across the country portray an organization that spread deep into Middle America, down to small-time sales.
In Oklahoma, authorities seized about 20 pounds of methamphetmaine, two pounds of cocaine, six weapons and several thousand dollars. They identified Ruben Garcia, 29, as a major supplier in the northeast part of the state.
Agents spotted Garcia and his partners dealing drugs over several months at restaurants, grocery stores and Wal-Mart parking lots in the Tulsa area, according to court documents. In one tapped phone call Oct. 9, Garcia counseled a supplier in Mexico who helped arrange a shipment in McAllen, Texas, that the easiest way to smuggle drugs is welded inside tire rims of vehicles.
Court records do not list an attorney for Garcia.
In North Carolina, targeted cells operated from the Raleigh area to the eastern cities of Rocky Mount and Greenville, a region with a large Hispanic population to help the targets blend in and quick access to three interstate highways. They made four arrests Wednesday but totaled 49 arrests over the past year.
In Nashville, after more than a year of surveillance, agents converged on a home when two people arrived in a Toyota Camry from Atlanta Aug. 14, according to a complaint. A search of the vehicle discovered hidden compartments that "contained nine similarly wrapped packages, each of which were the size of a kilogram of cocaine." One package tested positive for cocaine.
Inside the home, agents found drug ledgers, a money counter and a loaded pistol. At another home, they found about 50 pounds of marijuana, several loaded handguns and two bulletproof vests.
Texas Child Protective Services removed 20 children from houses in the Dallas area when authorities executed 44 search warrants, said James Capra, the DEA's special agent in charge in Dallas. All the homes where children were found had drugs, guns or cash derived from drug sales.
The sting reached into small towns hundreds of miles from Mexico.
Nine arrests were made in Monroe, Wash., with a population of about 16,000 and home to the state's largest prison about 25 miles northeast of Seattle. None seemed to be doing any retail drug dealing, Monroe police Cmdr. Steve Clopp said.
"I would say that they were well-integrated members of the community," Clopp said. "A lot of them keep up the everyday appearance of work and family."
In the Inland Empire, a cluster of east Los Angeles suburbs where 25 people were arrested and 156 pounds of methamphtamine 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."
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