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ONLINE DOCUMENT: FEDS CUT A FEW STRANDS OF WEB OF COCAINE

A trap sprung Thursday on suspected drug dealers shows how thoroughly integrated into American towns and cities Colombian and Mexican drug gangs have become, officials said.

More than six tons of cocaine, seized in what the Justice Department dubbed Operation Zorro II, was headed for cocaine dealers across the United States through Miami, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Richmond, Va., and Newark, N.J., federal law enforcement officials said.About 130 people, including Colombians and Mexicans described as key players in cocaine cartels, were charged with drug trafficking as part of the operation. Fifteen were arrested Thursday.

Attorney General Janet Reno said the operation "targeted both ends of the drug structure" and "simultaneously dismantled the organization that owned the cocaine and a second organization that ran the transportation system."

Thomas Constantine, Drug Enforcement Administrator, said Zorro II showed "drug trafficking is a seamless continuum reaching from Colombia through Mexico and to the streets and neighborhoods of America."

The drugs originated in Cali, Colombia, the product of the world's largest criminal enterprise, the Cali cocaine cartel, Constantine said.

The Colombians flew the cocaine into Mexico, then turned it over to a variety of Mexican gangs loosely known as the Mexican Federation of smugglers, he said.

From points ranging from Tijuana to Juarez, Mexico, the federation pushed it across in fleets of small vehicles, each carrying only 30 pounds to 300 pounds of cocaine in concealed compartments. Those cars and trucks converged on Los Angeles, where the cocaine was given back to Colombian traffickers operating in the United States.

The Colombians then moved the cocaine east to New York, from where it reached cities along the East Coast, and to Miami, where it was distributed throughout the Southeast.

The Mexicans kept a cut of the drug as payment, and they had their own distribution network through Chicago and Dallas to towns in the Southwest and Midwest.

Federal officials denied Thursday that the timing of the arrest was aimed at blunting GOP criticism of the Clinton administration for not doing enough to stop drug trafficking.

Republicans in Congress have recently released statistics that they say show the rate of drug seizures and "disruptions" of drug gangs declining under the Clinton administration.

DEA chief of operations H. Douglas Wankel said he could neither dispute nor affirm the GOP figures. He said the rate of drugs entering the United States is a product of complicated factors in both the United States and abroad.

Zorro II follows the 1994 Operation Zorro, which also resulted in multi-ton cocaine seizures.

Charles Riley, chief of the FBI's drug section, said Thursday, "I doubt whether even the large amounts of drug seized will make much of a blip on the nation's supply." But he said such operations are significant skirmishes in the federal war on drugs because they devastate established drug organizations.

Since September, federal and local authorities involved in Zorro II secretly charged 130 people with cocaine smuggling as part of the operation, which involved local police in 42 jurisdictions, the FBI and DEA.

The present phase of Zorro II ended Thursday with 15 arrests in Los Angeles, Chicago, El Paso, Houston and Midland, Texas.

Among those apprehended were men U.S. officials called "key Cali cartel figures," including Mauricio Gutierrez, Hernan Aquilera and Pierre Remy. Also arrested was Mexican Rafael Alapizco, charged with being the organizer of the Mexican transportation network.

Also busted were U.S. citizens at various points in the pipeline who were hired to move the drugs, including a New York City police officer and an Army National Guard sergeant in New Jersey.

The cocaine seized had a wholesale value of more than $100 million, said officials, and a street value many times higher. Also, about $17 million in cash was confiscated.