Just before dawn Wednesday, Drug Enforcement Administration agents launched a raid on suspected Mexican drug traffickers hiding out in a Los Angeles suburb.
Moments later, the suspects were brought out in handcuffs, caught in what authorities say is the largest national dragnet against Mexican cartels, which have been expanding their reach across the United States.
The California raid was one of dozens that took place over the past two days, targeting Mexico's La Familia cartel, an organization notorious for beheadings and its brazen attacks on authorities south of the border. La Familia also ships huge amounts of methamphetamines, marijuana and cocaine into the United States each year, the DEA says.
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"They're very active, they're prolific and they're extremely dangerous," DEA agent Jose Martinez said at the scene of the Riverside, Calif., raid.
The operation -- which authorities have called Project Coronado -- involved more than 3,000 federal agents and police officers in 19 states, resulting in the arrests of more than 300 people. Authorities seized $3.4 million, 730 pounds of methamphetamines, and more than 400 weapons from members of the cartel.
"[La Familia] is the newest and it is the most violent of the five Mexican drug cartels," said Attorney General Eric Holder as a news conference in Washington Thursday. "The sheer level and depravity of the violence that this cartel has exhibited thus far exceeds unfortunately what we have become accustomed to from the other cartels."
La Familia's tactics are also ruthless. In a police surveillance tape released by federal officials, La Familia drug smugglers are seen removing methamphetamine stashed in a car's hidden compartment. Then, they wrap the drugs in a blanket with a toddler.
"Since its emergence as a cartel in 2006, we have tracked La Familia's expansion into cities scattered all across the United States," said DEA administrator Michele Leonhart.
In the past several years, the DEA says, the cartel has expanded into the U.S. in part because of the zealous belief that drugs need to be pushed north to avoid the scourge of addiction from damaging Mexican communities.
"We are fighting an organization whose brutal violence is driven by so-called divine justice," said Leonhart. "La Familia's narco-banner declared that they don't kill for money and they don't kill innocent people. However, their delivery of that message was accompanied by five severed heads rolled onto a dancefloor in Uruapan, Mexico."
The latest spree of arrests mainly occurred in California and along the southern U.S. border, but operations extended to nearly a dozen major U.S. cities. According to the DEA, La Familia has distribution cells in the suburbs of Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, and North Carolina.
More than 11 tons of drugs and $32 million have been intercepted as part of Project Coronado, which has netted more than 1,200 arrests in the past 24 months.
Attorney General Holder said today the U.S. and Mexican governments still have a long way to go in breaking up the cartels. "We have to keep hitting them," he said. "To the extent that they do grow back, I think we have to work with our Mexican counterparts to really cut off the heads of these snakes and get at the heads of the cartels."