Federal authorities announced Thursday a dozen indictments against some of Mexico's most powerful organized crime groups for allegedly exporting tons of narcotics into the United States and distributing them to cities across the country.
Among those charged in the indictments were three reputed leaders of the Sinaloa drug cartel and the alleged head of the rival Juarez cartel from northern Mexico.
The cases, handled by the Drug Enforcement Administration and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, involved long-running investigations that spanned several countries. One probe started with a street-level heroin bust in Chicago and led to the highest reaches of the Sinaloa cartel; another followed the drug supply chain from a Colombian paramilitary group to the streets of New York City, according to DEA spokesman Mike Sanders.
The charges were filed against 43 individuals in 12 separate indictments in U.S. federal court in Brooklyn and Chicago.
U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. praised the "bilateral cooperation" between Mexico and the United States throughout the investigations.
Some of the suspects, including the reputed head of the Sinaloa cartel, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, have been indicted previously and remain at large. Holder said the new indictments were not a futile exercise and declared his intention to bring the defendants to justice in the United States.
"These are not symbolic acts that we are taking today," Holder said at the Justice Department, appearing with two U.S. attorneys and ICE and DEA officials.
Holder also acknowledged that criminal conduct had not taken place solely in Mexico, noting the indictment of individuals who had received shipments in Chicago.
"The audacity of these cartels' operations is met only by their sophistication and their reach," Holder said.
Three of the most powerful suspected leaders were charged in both Brooklyn and Chicago: Guzman, Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada Garcia and Arturo Beltran Leyva, who allegedly have ties to the Sinaloa cartel. Once allied in a partnership that federal officials dub "The Federation," Beltran Leyva and Guzman have been embroiled in a violent feud over trafficking routes since 2008.
Together, the four Brooklyn and eight Chicago indictments, which were unsealed Wednesday and Thursday, charge that the three men were responsible for importing and distributing heroin and more than 200 metric tons of cocaine between 1990 and 2008. More than 32,500 kilograms of cocaine have been seized, including about 3,000 kilograms seized during the Chicago investigation and about 7,500 kilograms from the New York investigation.
The DEA estimates that about 90% of the cocaine that enters the United States comes from Mexico.
Patrick J. Fitzgerald, U.S. attorney for the northern district of Illinois, said the indictments were "among the most significant drug conspiracy charges ever returned in Chicago."
Fitzgerald noted that the defendants allegedly used "practically every means of transportation imaginable to move these large amounts of drugs and to funnel massive amounts of money back to Mexico."
The drugs were allegedly moved by car, truck, boat, ship, submarine and plane, including Boeing 747 cargo aircraft.
As part of their operation, the three alleged Sinaloa leaders are believed to have smuggled more than $5.8 billion in cash proceeds from the United States and Canada back to Mexico. The indictments seek forfeiture of these proceeds.
"We've learned we must not only go after the leaders, but their money," Holder said. "If we suffocate their funding sources, we can cripple their operations."
Authorities also indicted Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, the reputed head of the Juarez cartel, who allegedly received multi-ton shipments of cocaine from Colombia's Norte Valle cartel and the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia paramilitary group. Carrillo Fuentes, who has also been previously indicted, remains a fugitive.
The indictments increase pressure on the accused traffickers at a time when they are locked in battle with Mexican security forces across that country, and as the Mexican government increases extradition of suspects to the United States. But most of the alleged kingpins named in the indictments have eluded capture for years and are already figures on Mexico's "most wanted" list, with authorities offering rewards of up to $2 million for their capture.
The indictments also add to the growing list of drug traffickers apprehended or wanted by the U.S. government.
Earlier this year, federal authorities arrested more than 750 people in the United States and Mexico who they suspected were affiliated with the Sinaloa cartel.
And 15 defendants were charged in previous indictments -- 10 in Chicago and five in New York -- including alleged customers, carriers and distributors for the cartels.
In all, 58 individuals have been charged in the investigations coordinated between the U.S. attorneys' offices in Brooklyn and Chicago. All but one of the defendants face life sentences if convicted.
Times staff writers Richard Marosi in San Diego and Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City contributed to this report.