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OPERATION ZORRO II UNMASKS DRUG TRADE

Mexican drug smugglers thought they were largely unnoticed as they calmly drove vans and cars packed with pure cocaine through the streets of U.S. cities, authorities say.

But agents using high-tech eavesdropping devices gathered evidence for eight months as part of a sweeping crackdown code-named "Operation Zorro II."Using that evidence, federal agents wrapped up more than 150 arrests on Thursday in an attempt to break up the coast-to-coast Mexican-Colombian cocaine smuggling ring.

"This investigation has driven a stake through the heart of one of the largest, most sophisticated organizations bringing vast quantities of cocaine into" the country, U.S. Attorney James B. Burns told a news conference.

The ring moved cocaine with a wholesale value of $100 million during the investigation, said Mike Horn, chief of special operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The drugs were stashed inside the trunks, wheel wells and other crannies of hundreds of trucks and cars that crossed the U.S.-Mexican border in California, Arizona and Texas, authorities said.

The cocaine was taken to stash houses of wholesalers in Los Angeles and later distributed to Colombian and Mexican dealers across the country, DEA agents said.

Arrests began in February, but their link to the overall investigation by 10 federal and 42 state and local law enforcement agencies was not disclosed until they were completed Thursday.

The operation was unveiled in Chicago and Washington, where it was praised by President Clinton as "another big victory in the fight against illegal drugs."

Federal officials said the operation was certain to curb shipments by the ring, based in Sinaloa, Mexico. But the vast profits produced by sales of cocaine on U.S. streets guarantee that other Mexican rings will keep the drug flowing in from Colombia, authorities said.

The ring got cocaine from the Cali Cartel and sold it to wholesalers in Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Miami, New York, Newark, N.J., and Richmond, Va., as well as several Texas cities.

Twenty-nine people were charged Thursday and at least 15 of them were arrested.

Among those arrested were a New York City police officer and a New York National Guard sergeant. Federal agents said the two were drug couriers to Richmond and Miami, and street dealers in New York.