Federal, state and local authorities across the country are sending an unequivocal message to Mexican drug cartel members in the U.S. and Latin America: If you kill a U.S. agent, there will be repercussions.
"This is personal," Louie Garcia, deputy special agent with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Thursday as authorities arrested more than 500 people in a nationwide sweep. "We lost an agent, we lost a good agent. And we have to respond."
The massive search for people connected to any Mexican drug cartel working in the United States began Wednesday night as a direct response to the Feb. 15 killing of ICE agent Jaime Zapata in a roadside ambush in Mexico. Fellow ICE agent Victor Avila was wounded in the attack.
As part of the effort coordinated by the Drug Enforcement Administration and ICE, authorities seized at least $10 million in cash and confiscated millions of dollars' worth of illegal drugs. Authorities in Brazil, El Salvador, Panama, Colombia and Mexico conducted similar sweeps in concert with U.S. authorities.
By late Thursday afternoon police and federal agents around the U.S. had seized nearly 300 weapons and more than 16 tons of marijuana along with other drugs. The sweep was expected to continue through Friday.
In the Newark, N.J., area, authorities on Wednesday arrested at least one person with ties to Mexico's ruthless Zetas drug gang _ the same gang believed responsible for the deadly attack on Zapata and Avila _ and seized about $1 million they believe was bound for cartel bosses in Mexico. Former Mexican special forces soldiers are among the Zetas' members
During a traffic stop north of Los Angeles late Wednesday police arrested one man and seized $2 million in cash along with 86 kilos of cocaine, drugs worth millions of dollars on the street.
In operations in South Texas on Thursday, authorities recovered hand grenades, assault rifles and bulletproof vests.
An officer involved in a raid in Houston was shot and wounded Thursday, though the injury was not life-threatening. The shooting occurred during a raid by agents with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and Houston police. The suspected gunman was also shot and wounded and was in custody, police said.
Nationwide roundups of suspected cartel associates are nothing new. More than half a dozen such sweeps have been touted as blows to major Mexican drug gangs in the last 2 1/2 years. But an Associated Press review of those operations showed the arrests have done little to slow the drug trade.
Zapata was killed and Avila was wounded in Mexico on Feb. 15 when the Chevy Suburban they were in was run off the road by at least two vehicles loaded with armed men. Authorities have said the agents, who were driving in a fortified vehicle with diplomatic license plates, identified themselves as U.S. diplomats in the moments before the shooting.
Mexican authorities have arrested three people in connection with the brazen attack.
"We are basically going out to disrupt narcotics distribution here in the United States no matter what cartel their allegiance is to," said Carl Pike, assistant special agent in charge of the DEA's special operations division. "It would be futile to send a message back to one cartel when they all are just as guilty."
Pike said that while the sweeps are a direct response to Zapata's killing, the majority of suspects were already targets of other investigations.
"People actually sacrificed a great deal of work" for these sweeps, Pike said. "For the lost agent's memory it's important, but we're also in a bully situation. If we don't push back, some other 18-year-old cartel member is going to think, 'They didn't do anything, so all U.S. citizens are fair game.'"
Derek Maltz, DEA's special operations division special agent in charge, said that cartel members should never sleep easy.
"Look to your left, look to your right, look behind you. If you are sleeping in your bed, you better be aware that we are tracking you," Maltz said.
Zapata's killing is the most high-profile attack on U.S. authorities working in Mexico since the 1985 kidnapping and killing of DEA agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena. Last year, an employee at the U.S. consulate and her husband, a Texas jail guard, were killed on their way back to El Paso, Texas, from a birthday party in neighboring Ciudad Juarez.
Mexican law enforcement and politicians have become routine targets of Mexico's warring drug cartels, but for the most part, U.S. authorities had largely been avoided.
Pike said the reaction to the Camarena killing _ U.S. authorities shut down the border and launched a manhunt for the agent's assailants _ sent a compelling message to the cartels. But in the ensuing quarter century, memories have faded and a younger generation has taken up leadership roles in the drug gangs.
"These kids _ cartel members _ weren't even alive," Pike said.
More than 35,000 people have been killed since Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched a crackdown against drug gangs in December 2006.
Mexican authorities are leading the investigation of Zapata's death and the Justice Department has announced a joint task force, led by the FBI, with the Homeland Security Department.