WASHINGTON, Feb. 26 (UPI) -- The Drug Enforcement Administration operation aimed at a Mexican drug cartel that was unveiled Wednesday by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder highlights the links such groups have across the United States.
And the news came as Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told lawmakers the escalating spiral of violence in Mexico that a crackdown on the cartels has sparked is "one of the top priority items on my desk."
Officials from federal and state law enforcement are concerned that the unprecedented level of violence -- which has included videotaped beheadings and hours-long firefights -- might spill over into the United States, and Holder emphasized this was a nationwide problem, not just a border issue.
Fifty-two people were arrested Wednesday as part of "Operation Accelerator" -- a 21-month DEA investigation of the Sinaloa cartel. There were arrests and indictments in California, Minnesota, Maryland and the District of Columbia.
All told, the operation so far has made 755 arrests and seized $59.1 million in cash, more than 12,000 kilograms of cocaine, 16,000 pounds of marijuana, 1,200 pounds of methamphetamine, 8 kilograms of heroin, and 1.3 million ecstasy pills, Holder said. A DEA statement also noted the seizure of $6.5 million worth of assets, including 149 vehicles, three aircraft, three boats and 169 weapons.
"It is no secret that we are now seeing many more international aspects to cases that were once only domestic ones," said Holder. "As our world grows smaller, the ability of criminals from outside the United States to operate within our borders grows larger."
And the pattern of activity revealed by the arrests and indictments announced Wednesday shows the nationwide nature of the cartel's operations on U.S. soil.
DEA acting Administrator Michele Leonhart said the agency "took down the cartel's operatives in big cities like New York and Baltimore and Los Angeles, but also in the small towns like Brockton, Mass., and Lancaster, Pa., and Stow, Ohio."
Stow, she said, a suburban community of 35,000, was used by the cartels to fly drugs from California to its local airport, "ferrying dozens of kilos of cocaine … on a regular basis."
"We would be naive to think that we can restrict the concerns that the Mexicans have to only Mexico, that the violence will only be there," Holder said, adding that border cities "are places that I think deserve special attention.
"But what I want to emphasize is that the dimensions of what we are breaking up today had nationwide implications," he said, adding the cartel had "an extensive web of cells in places like California, Minnesota, Maryland, and here in the District of Columbia."
International drug-trafficking organizations like the cartels "are a national security threat," concluded Holder.
So far, the extreme violence that has characterized the cartels' activities in Mexico has not been seen in U.S. cities, although one tactic characteristic of the drug wars there -- paramilitary-style home invasion -- has been used by criminal gangs in Phoenix, according to the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
But a recent report from the U.S. National Drug Intelligence Center said the cartels had connections in more than 230 U.S. cities, and possible spillover of the violence is at the top of the "to do" list for Napolitano. "The situation in Mexico (is) one of the top priority items on my desk … as secretary for homeland security," she told a hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee.
She said the recent violence, which had claimed already a thousand lives this year in Mexico and was often targeted at law enforcement officers and their families, was "of a different degree and level than we've ever seen before."
The United States should "never run the risk of Mexico descending to where Colombia was 15 years ago," she said, referring to a period when that country was seen as an incipient failed state.
Both Napolitano and Holder met this week with Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina-Mora Icaza. "We are working to support (Mexican) President Calderon in his efforts" to crack down on the cartels, Napolitano said.
"We are reaching out to the (White House) national security adviser, the attorney general and others to make sure we're doing all we can in a coordinated way" to support Calderon's efforts.
One issue she highlighted was a stepped-up effort to suppress the "southbound traffic in guns and cash," she said.
"We are looking at ways we can help suppress that traffic," she said.