In a case that authorities say shows just how deeply Mexico's deadly drug cartels are entrenched in the U.S., federal agents dismantled dozens of "distribution cells" operating throughout America on behalf of one of Mexico's most violent gangs.
Justice Department officials on Wednesday announced the arrest of 755 members or associates of the powerful Sinaloa Cartel during a nearly two-year, DEA-led investigation dubbed "Operation Xcellerator." Only 20 of those arrested were in Mexico, the rest were apprehended in cities and towns across the U.S., including about 50 in California, Minnesota and Maryland on Wednesday.
It was the Drug Enforcement Administration's third major operation against Mexican drug cartels, which have spread corruption and violence that has left thousands of drug dealers, law enforcement officers and innocent bystanders dead.
"International drug trafficking organizations pose a sustained, serious threat to international safety and security," Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said during a news conference. "They are lucrative. They are violent. And they are operated with stunning precision."
The Sinaloa Cartel, which is also known as the Federation, is one of Mexico's two most powerful drug-trafficking organizations - the Gulf Cartel being the other.
DEA Administrator Michele M. Leonhart said the Sinaloa Cartel has taken its place during its 35-year history as one of the "largest organized crime syndicates in the world." The cartel dominates the drug trade along the southwestern border and is responsible for much of Mexico's violence, she said.
"DEA will continue attacking the international drug trade with every tool at our disposal, fighting to defeat those who put deadly drugs on our streets and engage in violence in our communities," Ms. Leonhart said. "So rest assured that while this is DEA's biggest operation against the Sinaloa Cartel and their networks, it will not be the last."
DEA officials said the Sinaloa Cartel smuggles drugs to Los Angeles, where they are dispersed to 70 "distribution cells" in 26 states from Washington to Maine. She said the people arrested included U.S. citizens and foreigners, some of whom were in the U.S. illegally.
Told in numbers, the story of the investigation is striking: Investigators seized $59 million, more than 12,000 kilograms of cocaine, 16,000 pounds of marijuana and about 1.3 million Ecstasy pills. The DEA also reported taking 169 guns, three airplanes and three boats.
Ms. Leonhart said part of the operation's impact can also be measured in unprecedented changes to the cocaine trade. In the past two years, she said, the price of cocaine in the U.S. has more than doubled while the purity has decreased by more than a third - a sign that investigators have put the squeeze on suppliers.
But Ms. Leonhart acknowledged that the operation did not ensnare the Sinaloa Cartel's "higher echelon." Those top officials are now on the run in Mexico, including the leader of the cartel, Victor Emilio Cazarez-Salazar.
Shannon K. O'Neil, who studies Latin America at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the scope of the operation is significant, but it's "also just a step."
"Many of those people will undoubtedly be quickly replaced, and drug trafficking will continue," she said. "While it may hinder the Sinaloa Cartel's efforts to consolidate more territory and drug trading routes, there are others - the Juarez Cartel they are now fighting, their main rival the Gulf Cartel - that will continue to operate and even perhaps edge into vulnerable Sinaloa territory."
Although officials praised the cooperation between Mexican and U.S. law enforcement officials, the operation illustrates in a small way the corrupting influence of the cartels. DEA officials report that several of the people arrested in Mexico were Mexican law enforcement officers.
But Mr. Holder said the U.S. and Mexico must continue to work together to stop the flow of drugs and the violence the trade fuels, much of which is believed to be perpetrated with high-powered weapons smuggled to Mexico's streets from the U.S.
"As President Obama indicated during the campaign, there are just a few gun-related changes that we would like to make, and among them would be to reinstitute the ban on the sale of assault weapons," Mr. Holder said. "I think that will have a positive impact in Mexico, at a minimum."
Thomas Schweich, a lawyer with the international firm Bryan Cave who is special diplomatic representative for Latin America to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, finds reason to be hopeful.
"It's a message to the cartels that the U.S. and Mexico are working ever so closely together," he said. "This is just the beginning of this effort to crack down on these cartels. It's not the end."