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Authorities arrest dozens in 'surgical strike' against Mexican cartel

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • A 20-month operation targets La Familia Michoacana
  • Justice Department: More than 1,900 people have been arrested since it began
  • More than 70 are arrested this week, the Justice Department says
  • The DEA administrator calls it a "successful, strategic and surgical strike"

(CNN) -- U.S. federal authorities arrested more than 70 people this week in the United States as part of what one official called a "successful, strategic and surgical strike" against a notoriously violent Mexico-based drug cartel.

The arrests, announced by the U.S. Justice Department Thursday, were part of a 20-month operation targeting La Familia Michoacana, a drug cartel that started in Mexico and developed an international reach.

As part of the same operation, known as "Project Delirium," investigators said they have seized $770,499, along with 635 pounds of methamphetamine, 118 kilograms (about 260 pounds) of cocaine and 24 pounds of heroin since June 1.

The operation has led to the arrest of more than 1,900 people since it began, the Justice Department said.

Suspects arrested in Project Delirium have been charged with drug crimes, money laundering and other federal law violations, the Justice Department said. They face charges in Alabama, California, Colorado, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Washington, DC.

"Project Delirium is the second successful, strategic and surgical strike to disrupt and destroy one of the most violent Mexican cartels, La Familia," U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Administrator Michele M. Leonhart said in a statement.

In 2009 the Justice Department Thursday announced a four-year operation targeting La Familia -- known as "Project Coronado" -- that it said produced nearly 1,200 arrests and seizures totaling 11.7 tons of illegal drugs.

Last month Mexican authorities captured the cartel's top leader, Jose de Jesus Mendez Vargas, also known as "The Monkey."

Mexican government officials and analysts said his capture effectively marked the end of the cartel, known for its violence and the rules it imposed on its members.

Mexican authorities said the ideology advocated by the cartel's leaders included banning members from consuming drugs and alcohol with the goal of keeping a tighter emotional grip on subordinates.

But even with La Familia's possible demise, clashes between authorities and drug gangs have continued in the cartel's former stronghold, the central Mexican state of Michoacan. Authorities say a splinter organization, known as the Knights Templar, is now based there. contributed to this report.