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Had contacted the McAllen, Texas-based Los Piojos drug gang to purchase vehicles for Los Zetas members through thefts, carjackings and auto auctions in Texas.

Some of Los Zetas’ U.S. contacts have involved millions of dollars in drug profits, including efforts in Austin, Texas, to purchase, train, breed and race American quarter horses in the U.S. Four men were convicted in May for their roles in a conspiracy to launder millions of dollars in Los Zetas drug money. Among the convicted: Texas resident Jose Trevino Morales, brother of purported Los Zetas leaders Omar Trevino Morales and Miguel Trevino Morales.

Trial evidence showed that the men used straw purchasers and transactions in New Mexico, Oklahoma, California and Texas to disguise the drug money and make the proceeds from the sales of quarter horses or their race winnings appear legitimate.

U.S. Attorney Robert Pitman in San Antonio said at the time that the case showed how the corrupting influence of drug cartels had extended into the U.S., with “cartel bosses using an otherwise legitimate domestic industry to launder proceeds from drug trafficking and other crimes.”

‘A wake-up call’

Los Zetas activity has not been limited to the border states.

In November, five reputed Los Zetas members were named in a federal grand jury indictment in a Chicago-based drug operation that transported more than $12 million in drug profits between Chicago and Mexico. FBI agents also seized more than 550 pounds of the gang’s cocaine in the Chicago area.

U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald called the indictment the “first federal prosecution in Chicago of defendants allegedly tied to the Zetas drug-trafficking cartel.”

FBI Special Agent in Charge Robert D. Grant, who heads the bureau’s Chicago field office, said the presence of Los Zetas in the Chicago area “should serve as a wake-up call to law enforcement throughout the state.”

In 2010, federal agents tied a cocaine operation in Baltimore to Los Zetas. Prosecutors said cocaine and marijuana dealers gave $1.2 million to the Mexican cartel for drugs. Convicted were Wade Coats, 45, and James Bostic, 39, both of Baltimore; and Jose Cavazos, 43, of Midlothian, Texas.

Investigators seized $610,000 in heat-sealed bricks of cash wrapped in aluminum foil in two suitcases, and recorded a meeting between Bostic and Los Zetas members in White Marsh, Md., in which he handed over $590,000 for marijuana and cocaine.

The Midwest and the Northeast aren’t the only spots targeted by Los Zetas for its drug trafficking operations. The Department of Homeland Security has said Mexican drug cartels, including Los Zetas, have infiltrated 276 U.S. cities and represent the nation’s most serious organized-crime threat.

The National Drug Intelligence Center said the influence of Mexican drug gangs is “still expanding” and that Los Zatas is more deeply entrenched than any other drug trafficking organization and operates coast to coast.

Mr. Grayson has noted that Los Zetas members “pose a more serious threat to citizens on both sides of the border.” He said many of the gang’s members have homes north of the Rio Grande, where they seek havens and attempt to lure young Americans into their clutches.

Mr. Grayson, the specialist in Mexican drug cartels, said Los Zetas’ distribution routes run through the U.S., which means the gang has no respect for international boundaries. He said the gang considers Dallas a key point for transporting and distributing drugs and, according to the FBI, has gained control over U.S. gangs such as the Mexican Mafia, the Texas Syndicate, MS-13 and the Hermanos Pistoleros Latinos.

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