CHARLESTON - The tentacles of a violent Mexican drug cartel have reached into the heart of the Lowcountry, according to a federal indictment announced Thursday.
Fourteen people, including residents of Ladson, Summerville, North Charleston and Moncks Corner, were indicted on charges of conspiring to distribute illegal drugs.
The indictments were part of a nationwide drug investigation targeting La Familia, a cartel based in the state of Michoacan in southwestern Mexico.
The joint federal, state and local operation has netted more than 1,200 arrests and the seizure of more than $33 million in 44 months, federal officials said.
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La Familia has a vast network pumping drugs throughout the United States. It has earned a reputation for dominating the methamphetamine trade and for violence, including beheadings.
Michele Leonhart, acting director of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, said La Familia's power has grown quickly, in part because of 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.
La Familia is philosophically opposed to the sale of methamphetamine to Mexicans, and instead supports its export to the U.S. for consumption by Americans, federal officials said.
The heavily armed cartel uses violence - murders, kidnappings and assaults - to support its narcotics trafficking business.
According to one indictment unsealed in New York City, associates of La Familia based in the U.S. allegedly have acquired military-grade weapons and ammunition, and have arranged for them to be smuggled back into Mexico for use by La Familia.
On Wednesday and Thursday, more than 3,000 federal agents and police officers carried out arrests in more than a dozen states, including South Carolina. They seized 62 kilograms of cocaine, 729 pounds of meth, 967 pounds of marijuana, 144 weapons, 109 vehicles and two clandestine drug labs.
In the tri-county region alone, drug agents seized meth, crack and powdered cocaine, as well as drug paraphernalia, a gun and $30,000 in cash from a self-storage facility and houses in Ladson, Summerville and Moncks Corner, federal officials said.
Four of those indicted were from Ladson, two from Summerville, two from North Charleston and one from Moncks Corner. Three of the other five were from Atlanta and one was from Los Angeles. The 14th person, a female, was indicted, but her identity and place of residence have not been determined.
Assistant U.S. Attorney for South Carolina Kevin McDonald said the arrests should put a dent in the supply of meth, cocaine and other illicit drugs on Lowcountry streets. He also said a number of the suspects are in this country illegally and federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were assisting in the raids.
According to a joint statement issued by W. Walter Wilkins, U.S. attorney for South Carolina, and Rodney G. Benson, special agent in charge of the Atlanta Field Division of the DEA, the suspects were charged in a seven-count indictment with:
- Conspiring to possess with intent to distribute and distributing 5 kilograms or more of cocaine, 5 grams or more of cocaine base, 50 grams or more of methamphetamine, and 500 grams or more of a mixture containing methamphetamine.
- Possessing with intent to distribute and distributing cocaine, methamphetamine and crack cocaine.
Nine of those indicted were in custody; the others were being sought, McDonald said.
Five appeared before U.S. Magistrate Robert S. Carr in Charleston on Thursday and were ordered held in Charleston County Jail until a federal detention hearing Tuesday.
Two were apprehended in Kansas City and were to be brought back to South Carolina, McDonald said.
Two from Atlanta also will be brought to South Carolina to face the charges against them, he said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Phillips of the Charleston office is prosecuting the case. The maximum penalty each defendant faces is life imprisonment and a $4 million fine.
Other states where arrests were made or charges were filed include Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Washington state.
The Associated Press contributed.