Federal authorities arrested more than 750 people across the country in what they describe as "the largest and hardest hitting" operation to ever target the "the very violent and dangerously powerful" drug cartel known as Sinaloa.
The cartel is being blamed for much of the violence erupting along the U.S.-Mexican border, according to officials familiar with the operation.
U.S. officials said Wednesday that the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and divisions of the Department of Homeland Security have spent two years investigating and arresting people associated with the Sinaloa cartel — which they say has been smuggling drugs, laundering millions of dollars obtained illegally and fueling a wave of violence along the Southern border.
Combating that violence was "the whole point" of the operation, one law enforcement official told FOX News.
"International drug-trafficking organizations pose a sustained, serious threat to the safety and security as of our communities," Attorney General Eric Holder said in prepared remarks at a Washington press conference Wednesday afternoon, his first as head of the Justice Department.
"As the world grows smaller and international criminals step up their efforts to operate inside our borders, [we] will confront them head-on to keep our communities safe." Through "Operation Xcellerator," as it was dubbed, authorities say they seized more than $59 million in cash, 149 vehicles, three aircraft and three ships used by the cartel.
In terms of drugs, authorities confiscated more than 16,000 pounds of marijuana, 12,000 kilos of cocaine, about 1.3 million Ecstasy pills and significant quantities of other narcotics.
Forty-eight people were arrested Wednesday as part of the operation, according to one law enforcement official.
DEA Acting Administrator Michele M. Leonhart concluded that "we have disrupted this cartel's domestic operations."
Federal and state narcotics-related charges have been unsealed against associates of the Sinaloa Cartel in California, Minnesota and Maryland. But the cartel's influence stretches even farther. Other organizations with ties to those cases have been busted by authorities in parts of Minnesota, New York, Arizona, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Texas.
According to the Justice Department's National Drug Intelligence Center, 230 cities across the country are faced with some form of drug cartel or Mexican gang presence.
Through "Operation Xcellerator," U.S. law enforcement officials worked with counterparts in Mexico and Canada, where the Sinaloa Cartel is believed to have "distribution cells," which sell or transport the cartel's drugs. The DEA says efforts continue to "stop the ruthless violence the traffickers inflict on innocent citizens in the U.S., Mexico and Canada."
Federal authorities say more than $14 billion worth of illegal drugs is smuggled into the United States through Mexico every year. New Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair recently warned a Senate committee that — at some point — the Mexican government may not be much help.
"The corruptive influence and increasing violence of Mexican drug cartels impedes Mexico City's ability to govern parts of its country," he said. Holder praised the Mexican government's "courageous" efforts in confronting such far-reaching drug smuggling operations and said the United States must not be complacent in bringing the cartels to justice.
"These cartels are not just operating in Mexico," the attorney general said. "Their reach stretches far and wide. We simply cannot afford to let down our guard. These cartels will be destroyed."
By Mike Levine
February 25, 2009