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Mexican heroin ring operating across U.S. is 'wiped out' after more than 240 arrests, U.S. officials say
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- More than 240 members of a heroin-trafficking network have been arrested in raids against a major drug ring responsible for distributing Mexican black tar heroin to 22 U.S. cities, federal officials say.
Donnie Marshall, administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, was joined at a news conference Thursday by Attorney General Janet Reno and FBI Assistant Director Ruben Garcia to announce "Operation Tar Pit." Marshall said the arrests wiped out the Nayarit drug trafficking group.
"We dismantled them from top to bottom -- from their smuggling operation, to their wholesale distribution sales and all the way down to their street level dealers in many American neighborhoods," Marshall said.
Authorities said 173 people were arrested as of late Thursday, and 70 were taken into custody Wednesday night.
Marshall said Thursday's arrests also netted seizures of $200,000 in cash and up to 60 pounds of heroin. The DEA said the wholesale price of the narcotic ranged from $1,200 to $1,500 per ounce.
Among those arrested was Issas Hernandez-Garcia, one of the two leaders of the group, officials said. Hernandez-Garcia was arrested by Mexican federal agents near his home in Tepic, Mexico. He is expected to be extradited as soon as possible to the United States. Three top members of the ring were arrested in Los Angeles.
The group's other leader, identified as Angel Hernandez Ibarra, is being sought by Mexican authorities. DEA officials said they had provided intelligence to Mexican anti-drug officials to pursue their own investigation.
No known ties to Colombian cartels
Officials say the highly potent heroin was smuggled from Mexico across the California and Arizona borders to Los Angeles, where an ever-expanding distribution center shipped millions of dollars worth of the drug throughout the West, and more recently into several cities in the Midwest and East.
Officials said the Nayarit heroin ring was named after the Pacific Coast state in Mexico where opium was cultivated and processed in labs into heroin for shipment to the U.S. market. The ringleaders were described as "independent" with no known ties to Colombian drug rings or the major Mexican cocaine trafficking cartels.
Officials estimate the ring was distributing 80 pounds of heroin each month, worth more than $7 million, in 22 U.S. cities, said Joe Keefe, chief of special operations for the DEA.
The heroin was usually smuggled across the U.S. border in the dashboards or gas tanks of vehicles. Once in Los Angeles, it was then transported across the country by couriers who the ringleaders believed would not raise suspicions -- often female juveniles or males in their 60s.
The heroin, often strapped to the bodies of the couriers, was handed off to members of the organization upon arrival at the various cities.
The traffickers also sent the black tar heroin through overnight delivery services or the U.S. mail, often hidden in lamps and other small appliances.
Cities in the distribution network, officials said, included:
Areas in Minnesota, Alabama, Kentucky, West Virginia, and New Jersey also received shipments of the black tar heroin, officials say.
Customer base grew quickly, DEA says
The DEA expressed alarm at the speed with which the customer base for the black tar heroin was growing. Officials attributed that in part to traffickers successfully targeting methadone clinics where heroin addicts undergo treatment.
Corrupted clinic workers would steer patients to apartments or hotel rooms where heroin "shooting galleries" had been established, officials said.
"This organization operated in a dangerously efficient manner," Reno said. "Not only did this group exhibit disregard for the law, but their peddling of this powerful and addictive drug showed an even greater disregard for human life."
The DEA also expressed concern that the high purity levels of the black tar heroin -- ranging from 60 percent to as much as 84 percent -- were a serious danger to users.
"This new, higher purity actually allows users to smoke or inhale the heroin rather than injecting it," Marshall said.
"Unfortunately, many people think that if it's not injected, heroin is not as dangerous. And that couldn't be further from the truth," he said.
Both purity and price helped the Mexican drug-traffickers move into areas east of the Mississippi, territory usually controlled by Colombian or Dominican rings, officials said.
'Very disciplined, very professional ...'
Federal officials said the Nayarit ring was extremely well organized. They said that as soon as law officers would intercept drugs in a city, the members of the drug cell there would be rotated to another city where heroin remained to be sold.
"Very disciplined, very professional, very business-like," is how one agent who participated in the operation described the traffickers.
"We'd see cells opening up about 8 o'clock in the morning and distributing heroin until about 8 o'clock at night," said DEA Special Agent in Charge Rod Benson. He said agents saw transactions at a rate of one every 15 minutes.
Producer Terry Frieden and Reuters contributed to this report.
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