Drug Agents Break Up Smuggling Ring
WASHINGTON (AP) _ U.S. and foreign drug agents began arresting 105 people from Mexico to New York on Thursday in an attack on a Mexican-led gang that smuggled tons of cocaine and marijuana into this country. The United States offered a $2 million reward for the ring’s brazen kingpin and two henchmen.
Begun on October 1999, Operation Impunity II was the third major effort launched by the Drug Enforcement Administration since 1997 against a gang based in Reynosa and Matamoros, Mexico. The gang’s violent leader, Osiel Cardenas-Guillen, stitched together the remnants of two other gangs, formerly led by Amado Carrillo-Fuentes and Juan Garcia Abrego, according to a senior DEA official who requested anonymity.
Cardenas-Guillen has openly threatened U.S. agents and is known for purges of his own organization, earning him the nickname ``the friend-killer″ in Mexico, this official said.
DEA and FBI agents were arresting people in New York; Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; Memphis, Tenn.; Louisville, Miss.; and Houston, McAllen and Brownsville, Texas. More than 50 had been arrested by midday.
Eight U.S. provisional arrest warrants were given to Mexican police who were trying to arrest key figures there; another warrant was forwarded to the Dominican Republic for their police to arrest a Dominican national.
The State Department offered a $2 million reward for the capture of Cardenas-Guillen and two deputies, Adan Medrano and Juan Manual Garza-Rendon, in case they eluded Thursday’s dragnet in Mexico.
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, who were allegedly coordinating a cocaine shipment with Cardenas-Guillen. The Mexicans also seized various properties belonging to Cardenas-Guillen in the northern state of Tamaulipas.
Prior to Thursday’s raid, Operation Impunity II had made 82 arrests and seized $10.8 million in cash, 9,000 pounds of marijuana and 5,266 kilograms of cocaine, officials said. Overall, the three operations had produced 248 arrests and seized $36 million, 25,000 pounds of marijuana and 21,000 kilograms of cocaine from 1997 through Wednesday.
``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 Joe Keefe, DEA chief of operations. ``We’ve affected them, and forced them into new alliances to keep functioning.″
Keefe said the investigation was continuing in other Midwest and Western cities.
``The success of Operation Impunity II _ as well as the earlier successes of Operation Limelight and Operation Impunity I _ was largely the result of the outstanding coordination between federal, state and local law enforcement officials and prosecutors across the country,″ Attorney General Janet Reno said.
The gang smuggled cocaine from Colombia into the United States hidden under tractor trailer loads of carrots, cilantro, lettuce, limes, and jalapeno peppers, a DEA official said. Sixty percent of each shipment was moved to New York and turned over to Colombian and Dominican distribution cells, the official said.
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, this official said.
Cardenas-Guillen was indicted, along with seven associates, in the last several weeks in Brownsville on charges of conspiracy to distribute drugs and of assault on federal officers. The indictments were unsealed Thursday.
According to a DEA official, the assault charges grew out of a Nov. 9, 1999 incident at midday on the busiest street in Matamoros. A DEA agent and an FBI agent had been followed by a car through the city until a truck cut them off.
They were quickly surrounded by 10-15 men armed with AK-47 and AR-15 assault weapons and gold-plated .45-caliber pistols, the official said. Cardenas-Guillen stuck his head and a submachine gun into the U.S. agents’ car and told them he would kill them. While the other armed men aimed their guns at the car, the two U.S. agents convinced Cardenas-Guillen it would not be in his best interests to kill them.
Cardenas-Guillen assembled the gang after Amado Carrillo Fuentes died in 1997 from complications of cosmetic surgery to alter his image and after the head of the competing Gulf cartel, Juan Garcia Abrego, was extradited to the United States, tried and convicted here.