Sun, Aug. 03, 2008
By JEREMY SCHWARTZ Cox News Service
MEXICO CITY — Powerful Mexican cartels have assumed control of drug distribution networks throughout the U.S., sparking worry from U.S. law enforcement and experts that the cartels may export the violent methods that have ravaged Mexico for years.
U.S. officials say the Mexican cartels operate in dozens of U.S. cities, and analysts say the cartels are moving to consolidate their control of the entire supply chain of illegal drugs.
In the Atlanta area, Mexican trafficking organizations control the methamphetamine trade as purer Mexican ice methamphetamine has supplanted local powder meth production, according to the Justice Department.
Nationwide, the Mexican cartels "are the dominant distributors of wholesale quantities of cocaine in the United States, and no other group is positioned to challenge them in the near term," says the department’s 2008 National Drug Threat Assessment.
"Their idea is to control the whole economic process of production and distribution," said Georgina Sanchez, an independent security consultant in Mexico and executive director of a public safety think tank.
But while experts say the cartels’ incursions into the U.S. could spur more secondary crimes, such as kidnapping, most believe that the bloody battles for territory will continue to be fought in Mexico and not in the U.S.
While in some areas of the United States the cartels have entered into partnerships with local gangs, in others they have directly assumed control of local drug distribution, analysts say.
The Zetas, former Mexican soldiers who have become the armed wing of the Gulf Cartel, have been linked to killings along the Texas side of the border and as far north as Dallas, according to court records and news accounts. The Sinaloa Cartel has been linked to the local Houston drug trade. And in Phoenix, suspected Mexican traffickers dressed as the Phoenix police SWAT team recently attacked a home with high-caliber weapons.
"The violence in [American] cities has a direct cause and effect related to what is taking place in Mexico," said Fred Burton, vice president for counterterrorism at Stratfor, an Austin-based private intelligence company.
"The farther north you go from the border, the less that is understood," said Burton, a member of the Texas Border Security Council, which focuses on homeland security and economic development along the Texas-Mexico border.
The biggest worry for local law enforcement groups is that the cartels will bring with them violent methods honed during furious cartel wars in Mexico that have left about 5,000 dead since 2006.
In recent years, Mexican drug violence has reached new heights, with beheadings, videotaped executions broadcast on the Internet and the targeting of top Mexican officials.
U.S. Attorney David Nahmias said the Atlanta area has become a center of Mexican drug cartel activity and is considered especially enticing to the cartels because of its location as distribution hub for the highly profitable East Coast market.
Jack Killorin, head of the federal Atlanta High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force, said most of the violence related to the cartels remains contained within the organizations and isn’t affecting the larger community.
Killorin said that in recent years the Federation (also known as the Sinaloa Cartel) has eclipsed the Gulf Cartel as the predominant organization in the Southeast. The Gulf Cartel, based in the border town of Matamoros, once controlled East Coast operations but has been in a brutal war with the Federation for years. The two cartels have fought bitter battles for control of smuggling routes in Nuevo Laredo, and more recently, Ciudad Juarez.
Ricardo Ravelo, the author of several books on Mexican cartels and an investigative reporter for the Proceso magazine, said the Federation is well-organized on the American side of the border. "I’m talking about distribution as well as the collection of profits, money laundering and smuggling money back to Mexico," he said.
In the last decade, Mexican cartels have surpassed Colombian traffickers as the ascendant force in the hemisphere: As they move into the United States they have also taken control of Central American trafficking routes and dominate the market in South American countries such as Peru, according to law enforcement officials.
"It’s all a question of business," said Carlos Humberto Toledo, a military-affairs expert in Mexico City. "The American market represents the biggest consumer in the world, and all the cartels are focused on it."
Analysts fear that the cartels will bring not just drug violence but also peripheral cash-generating crime like kidnapping, extortion and protection rackets — common in Mexico.
Burton said there has already been an alarming spike in kidnappings along the Texas border.
"We don’t know how many have been kidnapped, but guesstimates by local law enforcement puts abductions in border towns at four to eight a week," Burton said. "They are snatched in the U.S. and taken to Mexico."
But other experts say it’s unlikely the U.S. will see the type of large-scale drug wars that have paralyzed various Mexican cities and forced President Felipe Calderon to send about 25,000 federal troops to confront the cartels.
Toledo said the cartels will continue to fight their major battles in Mexico. And less corruption and more effective law enforcement make it impossible for large cartels to flourish on American soil, he said.
The American market represents the biggest consumer in the world, and all the cartels are focused on it."
Carlos Humberto Toledo,