Hundreds of Mexican Drug Gang Members Caught in Crackdown

VIDEO: Incident raises the question: Are Americans targeted south of the boarder?

A sweeping federal takedown today confirms that Mexican drug cartels have penetrated the United States and have affiliated drug gangs on the streets of hundreds of American cities, federal officials said.

A total of 678 alleged gang members from 168 cities were arrested by an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) task force targeting gangs with ties to drug trafficking organizations.

More than 46 percent of those arrested were affiliated with 13 different Mexican drug trafficking organizations, ICE officials said. Of the 678 arrested, 447 were charged with criminal offenses and 421 were foreign nationals.

The operation, Project Southern Tempest, was conducted from December 2010 through the end of February. In addition to the arrests, the operation also seized 86 firearms, large quantities of methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana, and more than $70,000 in cash, according to ICE officials.

"These transnational gangs are a direct threat to our safety," ICE Director John Morton said at an afternoon news conference. "We have to go after them hammer and tong."

Morton said transnational gangs are not only working the drug trade, but are frequently working in human smuggling, weapons smuggling and other crimes with a nexus to the border.

Morton pointed to the example of Rodimiro Burquez-Cortez, a Mexican national and Surenos gang member who was deported once, but re-entered the country and now faces narcotics and weapons charges. His criminal convictions included illegal re-entry, assault, DWI, carrying a concealed weapon and drug possession.

Another suspect arrested in the sweep, Shawn Allison, a Jamaican, is a member of the Jamaican Posse whose rap sheet includes convictions for possession with intent to distribute and criminal contempt, according to ICE. Now Allison faces an even more serious charge: attempted murder.

"These are not people we want walking our streets," Morton said. "They have turned to a life of violence."

Project Southern Tempest is the latest in a series of federal task force operations targeting drug gangs. The operations include local police in dozens of U.S. cities, including Atlanta.

Sally Yates, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, said today that since task force operations began in 2005, they have resulted in charges in seven murder cases, at least five carjackings and several armed robberies in the Atlanta area alone.

In one of the carjacking incidents in Atlanta, gang members hit a young girl across the face with a baseball bat, Yates said.

Federal officials point out these gang bangers are not just operating in big urban centers. Project Southern Tempest arrests include alleged drug gangsters picked up in places like Reading, Pa., Provo, Utah, and Oceanside, Calif.

South Salt Lake, Utah, is not usually thought of as a hotbed of drug gang activity, but Chris Snyder, the police chief there, said today his jurisdiction has seen a surprising amount of gang crime.

"The drug dealers targeted in this operation have no regard for the law ... and degrade the quality of life in our communities," Snyder said. "Our goal in partnering with ICE and other law enforcement agencies is to make our cities safer."

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