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Originally published October 22, 2009 at 12:47 PM | Page modified October 23, 2009 at 6:33 AM

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Hundreds with ties to drug cartel arrested in Washington, 18 other states

More than 300 people have been arrested in Washington and 18 other states, accused of distributing drugs for a violent Mexican drug cartel.

In the largest single strike at Mexican drug operations in the United States, federal officials on Thursday announced the arrests of more than 300 people in Washington and 18 other states in raids aimed at the newest and most violent cartel.

La Familia has earned a reputation for dominating the methamphetamine trade and displaying graphic violence, including beheadings. U.S. officials said the cartel, based in the state of Michoacán, in southwestern Mexico, has a vast network that specializes in methamphetamine throughout the United States.

The arrests took place in 38 cities, from Boston to Seattle and Tampa, Fla., to St. Paul, Minn.

Attorney General Eric Holder pledged to keep hitting La Familia and the cartels responsible for a wave of bloodshed in Mexico. He said the United States would attack cartel members at all levels, from the leadership to their supply chains reaching far into the United States.

"To the extent that they do grow back, we have to work with our Mexican counterparts to cut off the heads of these snakes, to get at the heads of the cartels, indict them, try them, if they're in Mexico, extradite them to the United States," Holder said at a news conference.

Michele Leonhart, who heads the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), said La Familia's power has grown quickly, in part due to its quasi-religious background. DEA officials say the cartel professes a "Robin Hood mentality" of aiding the poor by stealing from the rich. Some drug proceeds are used to give Bibles and money to the poor, according to investigators.

The Obama administration has directed more agents, resources and money to fight the cartel's presence along the Mexico-U.S. border. But the arrests over the past two days occurred far beyond that region.

"The problem is not just along the southwest border, it is all over our country now," said Kenneth Melson, head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.

On Wednesday and Thursday, more than 3,000 federal agents and police officers carried out arrests in more than a dozen states, as part of a long-running effort that has netted nearly 1,200 arrests over almost four years.

The suspects face a combination of federal and state charges.

In Seattle, federal prosecutors and the DEA announced during a news conference that 20 people had been charged or indicted in connection with the operation, all involved in arranging or bringing the drugs into the state from California and distributing them.

Mark Thomas, the acting special agent in charge of the Seattle office of the DEA, said they were "selling narcotics and running money all over the place," from Seattle to Monroe, Renton, Lynnwood and elsewhere in King and south Snohomish counties.

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Thomas said the local investigation began in Seattle in 2008. Police narcotics detectives recognized the drug-dealing they were seeing was widespread and sophisticated enough to indicate a larger organization was involved. At the same time, a local narcotics task force in south Snohomish County came to the DEA with information about a methamphetamine-distribution ring there.

According to the charges, the DEA obtained a wiretap for the phone of the man prosecutors say was the lead defendant, Arturo Barajas Garcia, 32, of Renton, and learned he had direct contact with La Familia distributors in Northern California, which is where he was arrested Wednesday.

Another key defendant, however, Cesar Barajas Padilla, escaped arrest.

In all, the DEA and other law-enforcement agencies in King and Snohomish counties searched 19 homes and 22 vehicles, and agents said they seized 28 pounds of methamphetamine, 22 pounds of cocaine, seven guns and $200,000 in cash.

"The communities truly are better off today than they were yesterday," Thomas said.

Meanwhile, in New York, a grand jury indicted an alleged La Familia leader, Servando Gomez-Martinez. He is linked to one of the more brazen acts of cartel violence.

In July, after a dozen Mexican police officers were found slain, officials say Gomez-Martinez publicly proclaimed his membership in La Familia and said the cartel was locked in a battle with Mexican police.

Many of the new charges are centered on the cartel's methamphetamine distribution, but other charges involve cocaine and marijuana, the officials said.

Besides Washington, officials said states where arrests were made or charges filed include Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.

Seattle Times staff reporter Mike Carter contributed to this report.

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