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Hundreds arrested in 2-year drug route investigation

By Terry Frieden, CNN Justice Producer
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Holder: 2,200 arrested in drug probe
  • 429 arrests in 16 states
  • $154 million in cash, drugs, weapons and vehicles seized
  • Attorney General: Operation "struck a very significant blow"
  • U.S. officials credit strong cooperation from Mexico

Washington (CNN) -- Federal agents trying to disrupt illegal drug trafficking from Mexico arrested more than 400 people in raids Wednesday, bringing to more than 2,200 the number of arrests from a two-year investigation aimed at cartel transportation operations.

The 429 arrests in sixteen states from coast to coast punctuated the climax of what the government called "Project Deliverance." The project combined 22 geographically separate operations which led investigators to some common transportation routes.

"There were some Mexicans, but the vast majority of those we arrested are U.S. citizens," said one DEA official involved in the takedown.

The special operations agent who asked not to be identified because of his position, said the increase of roughly 15 percent in street prices -- and much more for heroin -- was evidence of the law enforcement success.

The massive sweep Wednesday by more than 3,000 agents and officers boosted the 22-month seizures to $154 million in cash, tons of marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine and black-tar heroin and over a thousand weapons and vehicles.

"This operation has struck a very 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," said Attorney General Eric Holder.

DEA Administrator Michele Leonart told reporters the agents targeted the transportation networks of all the major Mexican cartels that dominate the illegal U.S. drug market.

"If traffickers cannot smuggle drugs north to their distributors in the United States, they can't profit, and if traffickers are unable to smuggle drug money and weapons south to Mexico, they lose their power," she said.

DHS Assistant Secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement John Morton said drug trafficking will continue. "But it just got harder and there are a lot of people this morning who wish they had made a better career choice in life," he said.

The officials credited strong cooperation with Mexican authorities in carrying out the operations. The most important arrest was made in Mexico two weeks ago with the alleged leader of of the Castro-Rocha drug trafficking organization. Thursday the U.S. Attorney in Phoenix announced a six count indictment against Carlos Ramon Castro-Rocha, and said the United States would seek his extradition.

Arizona officials said he had used Phoenix area residents as "cell heads, transportation coordinators, stash house operators and drug load couriers" to import heroin to Pheonix where it was packaged for distribution nationwide. One prime destination was St. Louis, which has seen a sharp rise in heroin use, officials said.

The arrests or announcement of charges in the broader investigation that included Wednesday's raids occurred in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.