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Drug Bust Hits 14 Cities

Federal agents arrested scores of people nationwide and seized millions in narcotics Tuesday as they broke up what Assistant FBI Director Thomas Pickard called one of the top 20 drug distribution networks in the U.S.

The FBI said agents had warrants to arrest 100 people and search more than 70 sites in the operation involving a group allegedly imports tons of cocaine and marijuana across the Southwest border to distribute it in the East and Midwest.

The target of the year-old, multi-agency Operation Southwest Express was the drug trafficking organization of Omar Rocha Soto, who was arrested Monday night in San Diego along with his wife, Adriana Espinoza.

Also arrested were Daniel, Raul and Angel Sotello-Lopez, three brothers who agents said coordinated transportation for the group from their El Paso, Texas, base.

They and others arrested were charged with drug trafficking, money laundering and conspiracy. The trafficking charges alone can carry 20-year prison terms.

During the course of the investigation, agents seized over 4 thousand pounds of marijuana, almost 3 thousand kilos of cocaine and more than $1million in cash. By Tuesday night 70 people were in custody and nearly 30 more arrests are expected.

FBI Director Louis Freeh called the operation a success. "This investigation has resulted in a major disruption of the flow of drugs from the Southwest border throughout the United States, and the dismantlement of a major international drug trafficking network," he said.

Assistant Director Pickard said the group brought drugs into San Diego and El Paso then shipped them to friends and associates in Chicago. From Chicago, the drugs went on to Cleveland, New York, Boston, Nashville and Atlanta. He said the drugs originated in Mexico, South America and Southeast Asia.

"This organization that was disrupted today embraced the American capitalist idea and would sell any type of drug for a profit," Pickard said. "It did not discriminate in its dealings with any other drug organizations. For example, they sold to Dominicans, blacks, Middle Easterners and any other organized crime group throughout the United States."

Numerous federal agencies including the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, and IRS, teamed up with more than 50 state and local police agencies to carry out the investigation.

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