- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 18, 2008

The arrests of 175 drug-smuggling suspects provide a look into the Gulf Cartel, one of Mexico’s most fearsome drug-trafficking groups, and ‘Ndrangheta, perhaps Italy’s most powerful organized crime syndicate.

Law enforcement officials say the arrests strike a blow to the cartel’s ability to import drugs from Mexico and use the U.S. as a base to traffic drugs into Europe.

“The international aspect of this case reminds us that to be effective, we must fight the war on drugs collectively, and across borders,” Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey said at a news conference in Atlanta, where 43 people were arrested. “Too many communities, here and abroad, have been damaged by the drugs and violence associated with these cartels.”

The most recent arrests, which took place Tuesday and Wednesday, are part of an ongoing investigation led by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) into the Gulf Cartel. Ten of the people arrested in Italy and several in New York have been linked by Italian authorities to ‘Ndrangheta, a group whose domination of the Italian underworld has reportedly eclipsed that of the Sicilian Mafia.

In the past 15 months, more than 200 federal, state, local and international law enforcement agencies have arrested 500 cartel members and associates who have been charged with drug trafficking, kidnapping and attempted murder. The DEA said it also has seized $60 million, 18 tons of cocaine and 25 tons of marijuana.

The Justice Department also announced Wednesday the indictment of the three reputed leaders of the Gulf Cartel: Ezequiel Cardenas-Guillen, Heriberto Lazcano-Lazcano and Jorge Eduardo Costilla-Sanchez. They have not been apprehended and are thought to be in Mexico.

DEA officials said the Gulf Cartel is one of the two largest drug cartels in Mexico. There are seven major Mexican drug cartels that dominate the illicit-drug markets in the U.S. As much as 90 percent of the cocaine found in the U.S. originates from those cartels.

The Gulf Cartel controls the drug trade in northeast Mexico along the southwest Texas border. A DEA official said the cartel is particularly violent and has its own paramilitary group, called Los Zetas.

A 2007 report from the Congressional Research Service said that is the first time drug lords have had a personal paramilitary. Los Zetas is thought to have been formed by a group of Mexican military deserters in the 1990s and now includes Mexican law enforcement officials.

“The Zetas act as assassins for the Gulf Cartel. They also traffic arms, kidnap, and collect payments for the cartel on its drug routes,” according to the 2007 report to Congress. “Mexican law enforcement officials report that the Zetas have become an increasingly sophisticated, three-tiered organization with leaders and middlemen who coordinate contracts with petty criminals to carry out street work.”

The group has been linked to killings on both sides of the border, according to published reports.

U.S. law enforcement officials worry about increasing violence among Mexican drug cartels along the border. A confidential law enforcement report obtained by The Washington Times earlier this month warned it could result in increased violence against U.S. law enforcement officials.

Indictments released Tuesday include allegations that the Gulf Cartel’s reach has extended beyond Mexico.

Italian officials told Agence France-Presse that the Gulf Cartel worked with ‘Ndrangheta to traffic cocaine to Italy and further into Europe. Based in the Calabria region, or Italy’s toe, ‘Ndrangheta was able to sell cocaine bought from the Gulf Cartel at substantially higher prices in Europe.

At least some of the drug deals between the cartel and crime syndicate take place in the U.S. An indictment in New York accuses two men of buying cocaine there that was destined for Italy.

“This operation exemplifies the European vision of the international fight against drug trafficking.” said Nicola Gratteri, Italian public prosecutor for the Anti-mafia District Attorney’s Office of Reggio Calabria, Italy.

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