CHICAGO -- Federal agents have arrested 13 people as part of a probe into the alleged multimillion-dollar shipments of drug money between the Chicago area and Mexico's brutal Zetas cartel, authorities said Wednesday.
The FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration arrested 12 people Tuesday in Chicago and another during a simultaneous raid in Laredo, Texas, according to a statement from the U.S. attorney's office. Five people of the 20 total indicted in the probe remain at large, another was already in custody and one is hospitalized.
Authorities said they seized more than $12.4 million in cash and approximately 250 kilograms of cocaine last year from Chicago-area safe houses. An additional $480,000 and two kilograms were seized during Tuesday's raids, they said.
U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said the charges are part of the first federal prosecution in Chicago of defendants with ties to the Zetas cartel, which is believed to be one of Mexico's two dominant drug traffickers. Three people with ties to the Zetas were arrested and two others remain at large, authorities said.
The Zetas, formed by former members of an elite Mexican army unit, are believed to have been behind some of the most ruthless violence in a drug war that's claimed an estimated 35,000 to 40,000 lives.
Among the men who remain at large is Eduardo Trevino, who is accused of directing a network that shipped drug money from Chicago and other American cities to Laredo, where the money could then be moved across the border into Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Another defendant still at large, Salvador Estrada, is accused in an indictment of packaging millions of dollars in cash to be driven south by truck drivers.
Two alleged truck drivers, Miguel Arredondo and Vicente Casares, and another defendant linked to the Zetas, Juan Aguirre, are now in custody. Attorney information for the three men was not immediately available.
Jack Riley, Chicago special agent in charge for the DEA, said in a statement that the "influence of Mexican criminal organizations in the wholesale Chicago drug market is apparent."
One expert on the cartel said the Zetas have expanded their reach along the corridors of several interstate highways, including Interstate 35, which runs north from Laredo into the Midwest. Authorities in several other cities have made arrests of people with alleged Zeta ties.
Their influence stretches to thousands of drug dealers and peripheral supporters, said Sam Logan, founder of Southern Pulse, a Latin America intelligence service.
"The word 'Zetas' as a criminal brand is in a lot of ways much more powerful than the 500 or so men who actually are Zetas," Logan said. "Of that number, very close to zero are actually active inside the United States."
The odds are slim that federal agents will ever be able to prosecute cartel members such as Trevino believed to be running drug operations, Logan said. Authorities say they believe Trevino to be living in Nuevo Laredo.
"I think it's more likely he'll be killed," Logan said.