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A look inside a giant drug cartel

A bicontinental investigation is leading to arrests and searches for

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The disappearance of a US Drug Enforcement Administration operative may have pushed officials to aggressively search for more victims of the Jurez cartel's drug wars, observers here say.

Although US officials have not confirmed the agent is missing, the Mexican press is reporting the DEA agent - one of four officials assigned to the US Consulate in Jurez - had a car equipped with a tracking device that led investigators to a shed on one of the ranches being searched.

So far, 65 FBI forensics experts and 600 Mexican policemen have exhumed six bodies from the sandy soil of four Jurez ranches connected with the Jurez cartel. This week-old search, plus another investigation in Buenos Aires into a Jurez cartel money-laundering "cell," are providing a new glimpse inside the cartel's operations.

The Jurez cartel, responsible for some 50 percent of illegal drugs that pass through Mexico to the US, rose in the past decade to become one of the hemisphere's - if not the world's - most powerful crime organizations Some US sources estimate the cartel's income reached as high as $200 million a week. That mind-boggling sum was not only key to the organization's rise, but also an element in its undoing after its mastermind, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, died in July 1997.

The geographic spread of investigation sites - from Los Angeles and El Paso, Texas; to Ciudad Jurez, Mexico; Mexico City; Buenos Aires; and Santiago, Chile - is a measure of the reach of a drug-trafficking gang once powerful enough to count on its payroll Mexico's equivalent of US drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey.

On Thursday the director-general of Interpol-Mexico, Juan Miguel Ponce Edmonson, announced that a two-year investigation into the cartel has resulted in the shutting down of its Buenos Aires money-laundering "cell." Several Argentine and Italian citizens suspected of involvement have been barred from leaving Argentina, while their properties and cash were seized.

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