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Meth sweep nets 427 suspects

From Terry Frieden

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- More than 400 suspected producers and distributors of methamphetamine are in custody after DEA-led task forces fanned out in about 200 U.S. towns and cities in an operation aimed at denting the growing scourge of meth abuse, officials announced Tuesday.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said the coordinated raids, dubbed Operation Wildfire, found dozens of meth labs -- including several from which key suspects had fled -- in homes, garages and shacks.

"It is impossible to overstate the importance of Operation Wildfire or to fully quantify what it means in terms of lives saved and children protected," Gonzales told reporters.

He said 30 children were discovered in meth labs in last week's operation.

Gonzales said the week-long operation resulted in 427 arrests, and the seizure of 56 clandestine meth labs, more than 200 pounds of meth and precursor chemicals as well as weapons and vehicles associated with the operations.

DEA Administrator Karen Tandy told reporters the meth abuse problem, which continues to spread, represents a difficult long-term battle.

"Meth is America's own. It is homemade, cheap and readily available," she said.

The solution, however, has become international, she said.

In the wake of success in shutting down major labs in the United States, Tandy said 65 percent of meth sold in the country is now manufactured by Mexican trafficking organizations.

"We are taking this fight around the globe, because to win against meth in places like St. Louis and Sacramento, we have to go to places like Hong Kong, which is too often where meth cartels go to get their bulk pseudoephedrine to make meth," Tandy said.

Gonzales and other top Bush administration officials announced what they termed a comprehensive strategy for combating methamphetamine during a visit to Nashville two weeks ago.

The administration has been criticized by local government groups and by congressional Democrats and Republicans alike for not being aggressive enough in helping state and local law enforcement authorities combat the meth problem.

The often partisan Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved legislation designed to battle meth abuse, without the administration's backing.

The measure, modeled after an Oklahoma law, calls for placing all over-the-counter pseudoephedrine products behind pharmacy counters.

"I disagree we waited too long to focus on this issue," Gonzales said Tuesday.

He said he had declared efforts to combat meth abuse to be a priority when he became attorney general early this year.

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