- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement-led task force has arrested 678 gang members and their associates from 133 different gangs during a nationwide sweep in 168 U.S. cities targeting gangs affiliated with drug-trafficking cartels in Mexico.

ICE Director John Morton said “Project Southern Tempest” involved ICE agents working with 173 other federal, state and local law enforcement authorities to apprehend suspected gang members affiliated with drug-trafficking organizations in Mexico.

Mr. Morton said nearly half of those arrested were members or associates of gangs with ties to the Mexican cartels.

“Through gang-enforcement operations like Project Southern Tempest and Project Big Freeze last year, ICE will continue to disrupt and dismantle these transnational gangs and rid our streets not only of drug dealers, but the violence associated with the drug trade,” he said.

ICE agent Jaime Zapata, 32, was killed Feb. 15 when members of the Los Zetas drug cartel in Mexico forced his vehicle from a Mexican highway and opened fire. Mr. Zapata and his partner, Victor Avila, were driving from Monterrey to Mexico City, where they were assigned to ICE’s attache office.

Zapata was shot five times in the chest. Mr. Avila was shot twice in the leg, but survived. Neither of the agents was armed, as the Mexican government does not let U.S. law enforcement personnel carry weapons in that country.

The Mexican army arrested six Zetas in the shooting almost immediately and have since taken two others into custody. One of those arrested was Julian Zapata Espinoza, identified as a Zetas cell leader. U.S. authorities said the two agents identified themselves as Americans, and the vehicle they were driving had diplomatic plates.

U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents also arrested three men Tuesday as part of a suspected Texas arms-trafficking ring that bought guns recovered at the scene where Zapata was killed. Ranferi Osorio, 27, and his brother, Otilio Osorio, 22, were arrested at their home in Lancaster, Texas. Each is charged with possessing firearms with an obliterated serial number.

Kelvin Leon Morrison, 25, who lives next door to the brothers, was charged with knowingly making false statements in connection with the acquisition of firearms and dealing in firearms without a license

Of the 678 arrested in the ICE sweeps, 133 different gangs were represented; 447 persons were named on criminal charges; 231 faced immigration or civil violations; 322 had violent criminal histories; and 421 were foreign nationals.

In addition, 164 others were arrested for federal and state criminal violations, 78 of whom were foreign nationals.

In addition to the arrests, Mr. Morton said that during the operation, agents seized 86 firearms, eight pounds of methamphetamine, 30 pounds of marijuana, one pound of cocaine, more than $70,000 in U.S. currency and two vehicles.

Among those apprehended during Project Southern Tempest were Shawn Allison, 32, a Jamaican national and member of the Jamaican Posse gang, arrested in Bronx, N.Y., on attempted murder charges, and Rodimiro Burquez-Cortez, 34, a Mexican national and Surenos gang associate arrested in Provo, Utah, whose criminal convictions include carrying a concealed weapon, assault, illegal possession of controlled substance and possession of dangerous weapon.

Those arrested came from 24 countries in South and Central America, Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. Since 2005, the task force has arrested 20,373 gang members and associates, including 249 gang leaders — 7,699 with violent criminal histories.

• Jerry Seper can be reached at jseper@washingtontimes.com.

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