El Paso, Texas - About 200 law-enforcement officials - including the FBI, police, sheriff's deputies and others - swooped down on suspected Barrio Azteca gang members today.
The raids began early in the morning in what was described as a "shakedown" of the gang, which has been involved in murders, kidnappings, extortions and gun and drug trafficking.
"The El Paso law enforcement community has come together today to locate Barrio Azteca members as part of a major intelligence collection effort," said Special Agent Andrea Simmons, spokeswoman for the FBI in El Paso. "This surge is being done to generate leads regarding the ongoing investigation into Saturday's murders," Simmons said.
Among the agencies involved in the sweep were the FBI, DEA, ICE, Customs and Border Protection and DPS.
Officials in Juárez have said they suspect the Aztecas gang of Juárez may be responsible for the deaths of Lesley A. Enriquez, 35, who worked at the consulate, her husband, Arthur H. Redelfs, 36, a detention officer for the El Paso County Sheriff's Office, and Jorge Alberto Salcido Ceniceros, 37, whose wife worked for the consulate.
The Aztecas gang in Juárez is a brother organization of the Barrio Azteca gang of El Paso. Officials have said that the gang may have up to 3,000 members.
Top law enforcement investigators from Mexico and the U.S. have converged on Juárez since the three victims were killed on Saturday. The three victims had been at a child's party and left about the same time.
Heat on Aztecas: Clues to slayings sought.
In one of the city's largest law enforcement operations, teams of federal, state and local authorities on Thursday began pressuring members of the Barrio Azteca gang for information on the murders of three people linked to the U.S. Consulate in Juárez.
The operation is part of a huge attempt on both sides of the border to solve the slayings, which have brought international attention and the condemnation by President Barack Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderón.
"Basically, we're just shaking the tree to see what fruit comes out," said Special Agent James Bohn, a spokesman for the FBI in El Paso.
The FBI- and DEA-led Operation Knock Down interrogated 100 of the 700 known Barrio Azteca gang members investigators wanted to question, officials said. Some people were arrested because they had outstanding warrants.
Law enforcement officers are trying to generate leads on the deaths Saturday of Lesley A. Enriquez, 35, a U.S. citizen who worked for the U.S. Consulate in Juárez; her husband, Arthur Redelfs, 34, a detention officer for the El Paso County Sheriff's Office; and Jorge Alberto Salcido Ceniceros, 37, of Juárez whose wife worked for the consulate.
The three had left a birthday party attended by other employees of the consulate in Juárez in two cars when they were shot to death.
Lesley Enriquez Catton was the daughter of a prominent businessman, Manuel Enriquez Savignac. Her uncle was a former Mexican tourism secretary, according to family and Mexican news media.
The wife of Salcido Ceniceros is reportedly Hilda Antillon Jimenez, who worked at the consulate for more than 10 years. Consulate staffers would not confirm her name and said that for security reasons they do not identify their employees.
"She worked in the consular section, which deals with fraud, federal benefits, immigrant and non-immigrant visas, among other things," said Charles Luomo-Overstreet, spokesman for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.
Mexican officials have said they suspect that the Aztecas gang of Juárez might have been involved in the shootings.
The Aztecas is a brother organization to the El Paso-based Barrio Azteca gang. Both are allied with Vicente Carrillo Fuente's Juárez drug cartel.
The Barrio Azteca is the dominant gang in El Paso and has been involved in murders, kidnappings, drug trafficking and the collection of a quotas or taxes on drug dealers. The gang, started by El Pasoans in prison, has an estimated 3,000 members.
Federal agents also seek information on Eduardo "Tablas" Ravelo, the reputed capo, or boss, of Barrio Azteca in Juárez who last year was placed on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list. Ravelo faces racketeering charges and is thought to be hiding in Mexico.
Starting at 6 a.m. Thursday, more than 200 law enforcement officers -- including FBI agents, police and sheriff's deputies -- swooped down on the last known address of alleged Barrio Azteca gang members in El Paso.
"They're just going down the rabbit hole and seeing what's there," said Bohn of the FBI.
Bohn said the operation would continue. "It's going on for as long as it takes," he said.
The operation was designed to accomplish two tasks. "This surge is an attempt to put out the message to those guys that we're looking at them and to communicate to the city of El Paso that we're on top of things," Bohn said.
The operation also included U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection, the Texas Department of Public Safety and other agencies.
Special Agent Andrea Simmons, a spokeswoman for the FBI in El Paso, said the sweep was "a major intelligence collection effort" but she said that it did not signify that investigators weren't also following other leads in the murders.
Simmons said that agents weren't doing searches or arrests during the sweep but that some people with outstanding warrants were arrested. The number of arrests was not immediately available as part of the operation in El Paso and surrounding communities.
Simmons said most of the people were questioned on site where they were located.
And if they didn't want to talk?
"They didn't have to. You can't force anyone to talk if they don't want to," she said.
In one incident about 11 a.m., a team of ICE agents, El Paso County sheriff's deputies and officers from the Las Cruces/Doña Ana County Metro Narcotics Agency convened at Dismas Charities, a halfway house at 7011 Alameda in South El Paso.
The team brought a drug-sniffing dog, two undercover cars and two patrol cars with them and spent more than 90 minutes at the building. Dismas Charities employees declined to comment on the visit.
Fernando Ramos, assistant manager of a pawnshop across the street, said he has never had a problem with halfway house residents who cash their checks at his business. Ramos said the city has its problems but not to the extent that the operation implied.
"El Paso is a very quiet place," he said. "It always has been. In the area around here, I don't see any violence."
Across the Rio Grande in Juárez, more than 4,700 people have been murdered since 2008 due in part to a war between the Sinaloa and Juárez drug cartels.
Federal authorities were not taking any chances during the sweep.
At the international crossings in El Paso, Customs and Border Protection officers have been ordered to wear body armor as a precaution because of the situation in Juárez, agency spokesman Ron Smith confirmed.
CBP officers have also stepped up checks of southbound traffic looking for firearms and drug money headed to Mexico. "They are being extremely vigilant at this time," Smith said.
Mayor Cook warns Americans should avoid Juárez
Mayor John Cook, in a striking turnabout, is telling Americans not to venture into Juárez because of the violence.
"Personally, I am advising people not to go to Juárez unless it is absolutely necessary," Cook said in an interview Wednesday. "I agree with the State Department's warning for people to avoid Juárez. I continue to remind people that El Paso is still ranked the second-safest large city in the United States. I feel sorry for those who have to live in Juárez."
In July 2008, Cook and the El Paso City Council met the Juárez City Council in Juárez. Back then, the mayor said one purpose of the visit was to show tourists and travelers they would be safe and secure if they crossed the border into Mexico.
But on Wednesday, Cook said: "The Juárez mayor and I believed then that the drug cartel violence would work itself out rather quickly. But it is no longer just the cartels that contribute to the problem.
"Now, it's the cartel's thugs that are attacking people and are committing kidnappings and extortions."
The State Department's latest travel warning for Mexico mentioned several hot spots in the country that travelers ought to avoid.
"The situation in the state of Chihuahua, specifically Ciudad Juárez, is of special concern," the warning stated.
Juárez, with about 1 million people, reported about 2,600 murders, more than 16,000 auto thefts and 1,900 carjackings in 2009, according to the State Department.
New York City, with eight times the population of Juárez, had 466 murders last year.
Juárez Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz on Wednesday announced that the city plans to put into effect an operation named "Rutas Seguras" (safe passage), which involves beefing up security so that tourists can feel safe in Juárez.
Family: Slain couple knew of risk in Juárez, traveled to party anyway
Arthur Redelfs and Lesley Enriquez knew traveling to Juárez was risky, their relatives said today.
But they went anyway on Saturday to a friend's birthday party because that is the type of friend they were. They didn't want to let their friends down by not going, the family said in a statement given exclusively to the El Paso Times.
"They knew there was so much violence across the border, but their friendships meant so much to them," the statement said. "Both Lesley and Arthur had so many friends on both sides of the border."
Gunmen killed them in Juárez as they drove back toward El Paso. Enriquez, 34, worked at the U.S. consulate in Juárez, casting international attention on the crime.