Alberto Gonzales, the US attorney-general, said: "The actions overnight by the Mexican government are unprecedented in their scope and importance.

 

"Never before has the United States received from Mexico such a large number of major drug defendants and other criminals for prosecution in this country."

 

'Top associate'

 

One of the men expected to face a cocaine distributing indictment in California is Hector "El Guero" Palma, a senior associate of Mexico's most wanted man, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, who heads the Sinaloa cartel and broke out of a maximum-security prison hidden in a laundry van six years ago.

 

"The Mexican state will not tolerate the violence and will respond with total strength against all criminal organisations that damage the interests of the nation"

Felipe Calderon, Mexican president

Eleven other men wanted in the US on a variety of charges were also extradited.

 

Mexican officials said some of the men had outstanding sentences in Mexico but would be tried and could serve time in the United States before returning to Mexico.

 

Last year Vicente Fox, Mexico's former president, said he would extradite more drug suspects, but said the cartels would fight back.

 

In the 1980s, a Colombian policy of handing cartel leaders to the US led to bombings and assassinations that killed scores. The government eventually backed down.

 

Vicious war

 

Drug barons held in Mexican prisons often run their cartels from behind bars, making extradition crucial to cutting their power.

 

"The Mexican state will not tolerate the violence and will respond with total strength against all criminal organisations that damage the interests of the nation," Calderon's office said in a statement on Friday.

 

In recent weeks Calderon has sent thousands of soldiers and federal police across Mexico to clamp down on rival gangs fighting a war in several states for control of cocaine trafficking routes and opium and marijuana plantations.

 

Mexico extradited a record 63 alleged criminals to the US last year, but it refuses to send anyone who would face the death penalty, which is illegal in Mexico.