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U.S. agents arrest 638, seize firearms and drugs in sweep of Surenos gang

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. authorities have arrested 638 suspected gang members in a month-long sweep aimed at associates of the fast-growing network of Surenos street gangs, an international criminal gang that started in Southern California, Immigration and Customs Enforcement said on Thursday.

Suspected gang members and associates from 145 different gangs all affiliated under the Surenos umbrella were arrested in 179 U.S. cities during Project Southbound, carried out by the immigration agency's Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).

HSI special agents also seized 54 firearms and various drugs - methamphetamine, marijuana, cocaine and heroin - as well as more than $166,000 in U.S. currency and 10 vehicles, the agency said.

"Targeting transnational gangs like the Surenos is a top priority for ICE and we will continue to disrupt and dismantle the violence and criminal activities that they inflict upon our neighborhoods," Thomas Winkowski, the customs agency's principal deputy assistant secretary, said in a statement.

The Surenos, also known as Sur 13, has 30,000 members and hundreds of U.S. affiliates, the customs agency said.

The Surenos pay tribute to the Mexican Mafia with the number "13," signifying "M" -- the 13th letter in the alphabet -- for "Mexican Mafia."

A 2011 Justice Department study found that the Surenos and its associated cliques are the fastest-expanding U.S. gang, the statement said.

In addition to the suspected gang members and associates, 119 other people were arrested on suspicion of a variety of crimes, including federal and state criminal violations and administrative immigration violations.

Those arrested in the sweep, which ran from March 12 to April 13, came from 21 countries in South and Central America, Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. Of the 638 arrested, 256 were foreign nationals, the customs agency said.

The drugs seized by HSI special agents included 13.4 pounds (6 kg) of methamphetamine, 83 pounds (38 kg) of marijuana, three pounds (1.4 kg) of cocaine and 1.4 pounds (0.65 kg) of heroin, the statement said.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Leslie Adler)

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