WASHINGTON — More than 200 U.S. agents began questioning alleged members of a notorious El Paso, Texas, gang Thursday in an effort to gather clues in the shooting deaths of three people connected to a U.S. consulate in Mexico.
The round-up, dubbed Operation Knock Down, came as Mexican authorities announced that they suspected there was a link between the gang and the murders. U.S. officials, however, said that they still didn't know the motive, although they don't think nationality was a factor. Authorities had interviewed about 100 gang members by Thursday afternoon.
The gang, which operates as the Barrio Azteca on the U.S. side of the border and the Aztecas on the Mexican side, is a "very significant transnational street gang," said Andrea Simmons, a spokeswoman for the FBI.
The state attorney general's office in Chihuahua said it's established a possible connection between the Aztecas gang and the murders based on "information exchanged with U.S. federal agencies."
The gang, which recruits from within the U.S. prison system, is thought to be allied with the Juarez drug cartel, a sophisticated trafficking operation that's believed to be run by Carrillo Fuentes family.
The sweep also was aimed at gathering information about one of the gang's reputed leaders, Eduardo Ravelo.
Ravelo, also known in gang circles as "2x4" or "Lumberman," is on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List and is charged with racketeering, money laundering, heroin possession and cocaine and marijuana trafficking.
Authorities describe the Barrio Azteca as contractors for the Juarez drug cartel, acting as hit men on the cartel's behalf and engaged in shipping drugs.
Ravelo, who has ties to both border cities, may have had plastic surgery and altered his fingerprints, according to the FBI's Web site.
The shooting deaths Saturday have shaken Ciudad Juarez, the Mexican border town where drug slayings have become routine and the killing of innocent bystanders more common.
President Felipe Calderon has dispatched troops to hot spots like Juarez to try to contain the violence. Drug cartel leaders, meanwhile, have hit back with widespread kidnappings, murders and beheadings.
Lesley Enriquez, a 35-year-old consulate worker, and her husband, Arthur Redelfs, a 34-year-old detention officer for the El Paso Sheriff's Office, were shot Saturday afternoon in Ciudad Juarez as they drove back to El Paso from a birthday party. Enriquez was pregnant.
The couple's 7-month-old daughter was found alive in the back seat.
In a letter posted to the sheriff's Web site Wednesday, the couple's family called the murders a senseless tragedy. "They were a young couple just beginning their lives together as a family when they were brutally murdered," the letter said, adding that "baby Rebecca will never get to know her unborn brother."
In a separate attack, Jorge Alberto Salcido Ceniceros, the husband of another employee of the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juarez, was shot to death in his car at around the same time that day. His two young children were wounded.
Both groups had attended the same birthday party, authorities said.
Ciudad Juarez Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz told CNN that Mexican authorities thought the Aztecas were behind the murders, saying, "We know that the U.S. citizens were targeted. We know they were chasing them. We know they wanted to kill them."
Simmons said the FBI isn't yet ruling out a case of mistaken identity.
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