Mexico has extradited a purported drug cartel boss and three other alleged major traffickers to the United States, a move that Washington on Saturday called "unprecedented" in the cross-border fight against organized crime.

Osiel Cardenas, the alleged Gulf cartel leader who was believed to still be running his gang from jail in Mexico, was sent north Friday along with 13 others wanted by U.S. authorities after their appeals against extradition ran out, the office of Mexico's attorney general said.

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales praised Mexican President Felipe Calderon on Saturday for the extradition, saying the U.S. had never before received from Mexico such a large number of drug suspects and others wanted for prosecution in the United States.

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"The actions overnight by the Mexican government are unprecedented in their scope and importance," Gonzales said in a statement released Saturday.

In the past, Mexico has been reluctant to extradite major Mexican drug lords to the United States, arguing they should face justice here first. Officials also refused to send anyone to the U.S. who would face the death penalty, which is barred in Mexico.

But that attitude changed under former President Vicente Fox, who last September promised to extradite "all of those who have pending matters with U.S. justice."

Fox extradited a record 63 alleged criminals to the United States in 2006 alone, including suspected drug kingpin Francisco Rafael Arellano Felix of the Tijuana-based Arellano Felix gang.

Calderon, who took office Dec. 1, promised to increase the flow drug trafficking suspects sent to the U.S. and to do his share to fight the organized crime that has infiltrated all aspects of Mexican society, including nearly every level of law enforcement and government.

U.S. Ambassador Tony Garza said the latest extradition demonstrated the "courage and conviction" of Mexico's president, attorney general and law enforcement officers.

"Today, both the Mexican and the American people can celebrate a monumental moment in our two nations' battle with the vicious drug traffickers and criminals who threaten our very way of life," Garza said in a statement Friday night.

In addition to Cardenas, Mexico extradited Ismael and Gilberto Higuera Guerrero, brothers and former chiefs in the Arellano-Felix cartel in Tijuana and Mexicali; and Hector Palma Salazar, a former leader in the Sinaloa cartel led by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.

Eleven others were extradited on a variety of U.S. charges, including murder, drug trafficking, kidnapping and sex crimes, the two governments said.

After taking office, Calderon almost immediately ordered widespread raids by federal police and army troops in states where rival drug-trafficking gangs have engaged in shootouts, executions and even beheadings in recent months.

More than 17,000 soldiers have been deployed in the city of Tijuana, across from San Diego; Calderon's native central state of Michoacan; and the Pacific coast state of Guerrero, which includes the resort city of Acapulco.

Many drug leaders remain at large. Guzman, the head of the Sinaloa cartel who escaped from a Mexican prison in 2001, is described as Mexico's most powerful drug lord.

Mexican investigators say Guzman has formed an alliance with alleged drug barons Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada and Juan Jose "El Azul" Esparragoza. Known as "The Federation," the alliance is engaged in a bloody turf war with the Gulf and Tijuana cartels, with the gangs using heavy weapons like rocket-propelled grenades.

Washington has offered rewards of $5 million each for information leading to the arrests of Zambada and Guzman.

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