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US Law Enforcement Targets Leaders of Mexican Drug Gangs

U.S. federal law enforcement agencies have stepped up efforts to capture top leaders of two of the most powerful Mexican drug trafficking organizations that are now operating together under an umbrella framework they call "the Company". The United States and Mexico view these criminals as threats to their national security.

This week, the U.S. government announced a $50 million reward program aimed at the leaders of Mexico's Gulf cartel and former Mexican soldiers known as the Zetas, who officials say are in league with the Gulf cartel.

In wiretaps, leaders of the two groups were heard referring to their joint operation as "The Company". A U.S. federal indictment announced on Monday targets four of the organization's top leaders and 15 others who are described as subordinates.

Among those indicted is Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, who is considered to be the leader of the group. He is charged with ordering five murders in the border town of Laredo, Texas that were carried out by a hit squad composed of American teenagers whom he recruited and armed.

The Mexican government is offering $2 million for information leading to the arrest of Trevino and his brother, who is also alleged to be involved in the drug trafficking group.

In Washington, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder warned that these drug smuggling organizations are a serious problem for both nations.

"Mexican drug cartels in particular pose both a national security threat and an organized crime threat to both the United States and to Mexico," said Eric Holder.

People living in Mexico see the effects of the drug war on a daily basis. More than 7,700 people have died there in drug-related violence since the start of last year. This week, an alleged gunman for a drug trafficking group in central Mexico was interviewed on national television, coolly answering questions from reporters as he sat guarded by heavily armed federal agents.

He said he and other men from the La Familia organization guarded the entrance to the town in Michoacán state where they operated, carrying automatic rifles and keeping a close eye on everyone who came and went. He said local police never interfered with their operations.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon sent 2,500 extra troops to Michoacán this week in a major push against criminal gangs. President Calderon began a nationwide war on organized crime shortly after he took office in December 2006.

His actions are applauded by agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA, whose office here in Houston is spearheading the U.S. effort to bring the cartel leaders to justice.

DEA agent Paul Craine, the Assistant Special Agent in charge of the Houston Organized Crime Strike Force, says that the recent surge in violence in Mexico indicates that government efforts are succeeding.

"A lot of the violence is the result of the commitment of the Mexican government at the highest levels to address these issues and address these threats," said Paul Craine. "And the violence you see is a direct response to the effectiveness of these coordinated efforts against their operations and their activities."

Craine says increased cooperation between Mexico and the United States, and the willingness of Mexican courts to send criminals to the U.S. for prosecution gives him confidence that the indicted men will be captured.

"With increased extradition from Mexico, it takes a while," he said. "But we expect most, if not all, of the people named in this indictment to be arrested and to face justice."

The DEA says the $5 million reward offered by the U.S. government for information leading to the arrest of Trevino and other cartel leaders will, at a minimum, make the targeted criminals very nervous as they go about their business.

"You know, when they are all sitting around the table meeting, they are having to worry about who is going to be the person that will turn them in or who might be the person who will take advantage of this offer of a reward," said Craine. "So it does have a great effect and it has lead in the past to the capture of many high-level targets."

Although past experience shows that whenever one drug lord is toppled he is quickly replaced by a rival, Paul Craine says the arrests still have a disruptive effect on the drug smuggling operations.

"When you do take out the leaders of these organizations, many times when they are replaced," he said. "They are replaced by persons who are not as powerful, do not have as many corrupt connections, are not able to operate with impunity. And it does have a significant effect on these organizations and their ability to operate."

As part of the multi-agency effort targeting these Mexican cartels, the U.S. Treasury Department will freeze any assets in the United States that can be tied to indicted cartel members and take action against any person or business connected to them. The Treasury Department identified the Gulf cartel as a significant narcotics trafficking organization in 2007 under the Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act.