More than 50 suspects were arrested yesterday in an international narcotics investigation targeting a suspected Mexican drug operation that sent tons of cocaine and marijuana annually into the United States.
U.S. authorities, led by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI and the U.S. Customs Service, took the suspects into custody following raids in New York, Illinois, Ohio, Tennessee, Mississippi and Texas. Another 50 suspects are still being sought.
The State Department was offering a $2 million reward for the suspected kingpin, Osiel Cardenas-Guillen, and two of his top lieutenants, Adan Medrano and Juan Manual Garza-Rendon. Cardenas-Guillen has openly threatened U.S. drug agents and is known for violent purges of his own organization.
The arrests are part of an undercover investigation known as “Operation Impunity II,” which began in October 1999. It is the third major probe by the DEA since 1997 of the Cardenas-Guillen ring, which operates out of Reynosa and Matamoros, Mexico.
DEA officials said the Cardenas-Guillen operation was put together from the remnants of two other drug rings formerly led by Amado Carrillo Fuentes and Juan Garcia Abrego.
Carrillo Fuentes, known as the “Lord of the Skies,” was considered Mexico’s No. 1 drug smuggler. He died in Mexico City in 1997 after plastic surgery in a failed attempt to alter his appearance. Garcia Abrego was extradited to the United States, tried and convicted.
Mexican authorities, who assisted in the undercover probe, were seeking suspects in that country on eight warrants issued by U.S. courts. Another warrant was sent to the Dominican Republic for police there to arrest a Dominican national.
The Mexican attorney general’s office announced the arrest of three Colombians, Ruben Dario Nieto Benjumea, Gustavo Adolfo Londono Zapata and Elkin F. Cano Villa. Mexican authorities also seized several properties belonging to Cardenas-Guillen.
Cardenas-Guillen was indicted, along with seven associates, in the last several weeks in Brownsville, Texas, on charges of conspiracy to distribute drugs and for assaulting federal officers. The indictments were unsealed yesterday.
The assault charges, the DEA said, stem from a Nov. 9, 1999, incident when a DEA agent and an FBI agent were surrounded at midday on the street in Matamoros by more than a dozen men armed with AK-47 and AR-15 assault weapons and gold-plated .45-caliber pistols.
The DEA said Cardenas-Guillen stuck his head and a submachine gun into the agents’ car and threatened to kill them. The agents, however, convinced him that their deaths would not be in his best interest.
“We are sending a clear and strong message that no one can threaten or harm a federal agent with impunity,” said DEA Administrator Donnie R. Marshall. “Make no mistake, if you harm a special agent, we will spare no effort to ensure that you are brought to justice.”
Before yesterday’s raids, Operation Impunity II had netted 82 arrests, $10.8 million in cash, 9,000 pounds of marijuana and 5,266 kilograms of cocaine. Overall, the three operations produced 248 arrests and seized $36 million, 25,000 pounds of marijuana and 21,000 kilograms of cocaine.
“The rules of evidence force us to periodically take down parts of this operation, but the three operations show we’re not stopping. We keep hitting them,” said Joseph Keefe, who heads the DEA’s special operations division. “We’ve affected them, and forced them into new alliances to keep functioning.”
Attorney General Janet Reno said the success of Operation Impunity II was “largely the result of the outstanding coordination between federal, state and local law enforcement officials and prosecutors across the country.”
The DEA said the Cardenas-Guillen gang smuggled cocaine from Colombia into this country hidden under tractor-trailer loads of carrots, cilantro and lettuce.
They said nearly 60 percent of each shipment was moved to New York and turned over to Colombian and Dominican distribution cells.
The other 40 percent was kept by the Mexican-led gang as payment for the smuggling operation and was shipped to their cells in Chicago, Houston, Memphis, Tenn., and Columbus, Ohio, for distribution by their own people.