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More than 200 arrested as Mexican heroin ring is busted, U.S. officials say
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- "Operation Tar Pit" put more than 200 members of a heroin-trafficking network under arrest as a result of law enforcement raids against a major drug ring responsible for the distribution of Mexican black tar heroin to dozens of U.S. cities, federal officials said Thursday.
"This morning we successfully wiped out this entire national heroin-trafficking organization," said Drug Enforcement Administration administrator Donnie Marshall.
"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," he said.
Officials say the highly potent heroin, known as black tar, 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.
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 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 narcotic, 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.
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 of methadone clinics where heroin addicts undergo treatment.
The DEA also expressed concern that the high purity levels -- ranging from 60 percent to as much as 84 percent -- were a serious danger to users.
Results of the 9-month long investigation dubbed "Operation Tar Pit" were announced by Marshall, Attorney General Janet Reno and FBI Assistant Director Ruben Garcia.
Officials said the Nayarit heroin ring was named after the state in Mexico where the opium was cultivated and processed in labs into heroin for shipment to the U.S. market.
No known ties to Colombian cartels
The ringleaders were described as "independent" with no known ties to Colombian drug rings or the major Mexican cocaine trafficking cartels.
At least one arrest was made in Mexico, and DEA officials said they had provided intelligence to that country's anti-drug officials to pursue their own investigation.
On Thursday alone, 165 suspects had been arrested in raids that began before dawn. Seventy people were already in custody Wednesday night.
Twenty pounds of heroin was seized Thursday, in addition to 40 pounds previously seized in the investigation. The DEA said the wholesale price of the drug ranged from $1,200 to $1,500 dollars per ounce.
Producer Terry Frieden contributed to this report.
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