HOUSTON – HOUSTON (AP) — More than 2,200 people have been arrested during a 22-month investigation aimed at thwarting Mexican drug cartel efforts to distribute narcotics across the U.S. and funnel guns and money back south of the border, federal authorities said Thursday.
The probe, called Project Deliverance, focused on shutting down many of the cartels' U.S.-based cells that smuggle drugs, including cocaine, heroin and marijuana, across the U.S.-Mexico border, collect them at major distribution points like Houston and then distribute them nationwide.
Many cells also were responsible for laundering drug profits through real estate purchases and smuggling the proceeds as well as guns back into Mexico to support cartel operations, officials said.
All of Mexico's major drug organizations, including the Beltran Leyva, Gulf and Sinaloa cartels, were targeted in the investigation.
"This operation has struck a significant blow against the cartels, but make no mistake: we know that as successful as this operation was, it was just one battle in what is an ongoing war," U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said at a Washington, D.C. news conference.
More than 400 arrests were made Wednesday in 16 states, including Texas, California and Virginia.
The Justice Department says the probe has led to the seizure of $154 million in currency, more than 1,200 pounds of methamphetamine, 2.5 tons of cocaine, more than 1,400 pounds of heroin and 69 tons of marijuana.
Those arrested included Carlos Ramon Castro-Rocha, accused of running a major black tar heroin smuggling operation from Mexico. Castro-Rocha was a middle man for Mexican cartels who worked for both the Sinaloa and the Familia cartels, moving about 70 kilos of heroin per month to the United States and then bringing $2 million back to Mexico monthly, said a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the case.
Castro-Rocha, 36, from Sinaloa, was arrested in Mexico on May 30 and awaits extradition to the U.S. He faces heroin trafficking charges in Arizona and North Carolina.
In Mexico, Ramon Pequeno, head of the anti-narcotics division of Mexico's federal police, said U.S.-Mexico cooperation has been key in arresting traffickers.
People like Castro-Rocha "keep a low profile, manage significant amounts of drugs and money, are little known and don't belong to any traditional drug trafficking organization, which makes it difficult to identify and capture them," Pequeno said. "It is at this stage that the exchange of information and the collaboration with authorities from other countries is heightened."
The Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement worked on the effort with state and local law enforcement agencies.
Arrests in Texas exemplified how officials said the federal probe disrupted cartel operations in the U.S.
In Houston and south Texas, officials said they shut down cells from the Beltran Leyva, Gulf and Zeta cartels that smuggled drugs into the U.S. in fake hay bales, school buses and dump trucks and also laundered millions of dollars in drug proceeds through the purchase of more than 70 residential lots in Hidalgo County. Those indicted in south Texas included Hernan Guerra, the police chief of Sullivan City, a small town near the Mexican border. He is accused of helping smuggle marijuana into the U.S.
"Each dollar we take is one they can't use to support their operations in Mexico," said Jose Angel Moreno, the U.S. attorney based in Houston.
In West Texas, 13 indictments were returned against 130 people directly associated with the two dominant cartels in the Ciudad Juarez, Mexico area: the Juarez and Sinaloa cartels.
"These organizations will be forced to recruit and develop new alliances for the transportation and distribution of their illicit drugs," said Joseph Arabit, El Paso's DEA chief. "By relying on less experienced and less trusted individuals in support of their activities they'll be more vulnerable to infiltration, further disruption and exploitation by law enforcement authorities."
Associated Press writers Pete Yost in Washington, Olga R. Rodriguez in Mexico City and Christopher Sherman in El Paso, Texas contributed to this report.