261 Arrests Target Mexico Drug Cartel

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Federal agents have arrested 261 people in connection with a Mexico-based drug trafficking cartel responsible for putting millions of dollars worth of cocaine and marijuana on the streets of 16 U.S. cities, government officials said Wednesday.

The Drug Enforcement Administration, working with agents of the FBI and Customs Service and assisted by local law enforcement, made 76 of the arrests in the early morning hours Wednesday in more than a dozen cities, adding to 185 arrests made previously.

Joseph Keefe, the DEA's chief of operations, said the bust, code-named Operation Marquis, has crippled a narcotics smuggling operation run by the brother of drug lord Amado Carillo-Fuentes, who died in 1997 after botched facial surgery to change his appearance.

Vincente Carrillo-Fuentes, Jose Albino Quintero-Meraz and alleged drug kingpin Alcides Ramon Magana, who were arrested in the Gulf Coast state of Tabasco earlier this month, are central players in the smuggling ring, Keefe said.

Magana's arrest, together with Wednesday's busts, was a significant blow to Mexican drug cartels and highlights growing cross-border cooperation between the United States and Mexico in arresting traffickers, authorities said.

Keefe called the bust one of the largest of its kind in recent years. Suspected "cell" members of the cartel were arrested in cities as far apart as Baltimore, St. Louis and Houston. No arrests have been made in California.

"We have disrupted their organization and made it much more difficult for them to function in the United States," he said.

Over 18 months, Operation Marquis agents have seized nearly 19,800 pounds of cocaine, more than 27,000 pounds of marijuana and $12.5 million in U.S. currency.

Provisional arrest warrants naming 14 suspects in Mexico were being submitted to Mexican authorities under a new information-sharing agreement with the government of President Vicente Fox. U.S. prosecutors will request the extradition of these suspects once they are caught, officials said.

U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft termed the operation "an excellent example of what can be done when we work together with our law enforcement counterparts in Mexico." He said the arrests should "send a clear message to criminals on both sides of our border."

The cartel allegedly moved large quantities of cocaine and marijuana from Colombia to warehouses in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, on the U.S. border. The organization transported most drugs to U.S. cities in tractor-trailers, with the narcotics concealed by loads of fresh produce. Smaller quantities often were carried in concealed compartments of automobiles, officials said.

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