Mexican Cartels Have Seized Control of the U.S. Drug Market

A new report from the DEA finds that Mexican gangs take advantage of U.S. gang and law enforcement connections to maneuver North America's multibillion-dollar illegal drug industry.
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Nine alleged drug traffickers, members of the Sinaloa Cartel, are escorted to a police truck after being presented to the press in Mexico City, on July 12, 2010. (Photo: Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty Images)

Nine alleged drug traffickers, members of the Sinaloa Cartel, are escorted to a police truck after being presented to the press in Mexico City, on July 12, 2010. (Photo: Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty Images)

The illegal drug trade in the United States is a multibillion-dollar industry, and the U.S.- and Mexico-based gangs pulling the strings have long captivated the media and eluded law enforcement.

For years, Sam Quinones chronicled the Los Angeles Police Department's efforts to eradicate violent gangs from the city. And, as he wrote in our January/February 2015 issue, law enforcement tactics have seemingly paid off: Since 2008, Los Angeles gang crime has decreased by nearly 50 percent. Robberies and assault rates have plummeted, and attacks on black residents by Latino gang members have also drastically decreased. But despite the fact that gang visibility in Southern California has diminished, Mexican gangs are gaining ground across the U.S.

A new analysis from the Drug Enforcement Agency shows that seven Mexican transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) have seized complete control of the U.S. drug market. Mexican cartels deliver drugs to more cities in the U.S. than any other transnational gang, including those from Asia, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic.

Throughout the country, Mexican TCOs wield unrivaled power, dominating the trafficking of cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, and marijuana. Mexico is also the biggest producer of clandestine Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that has been deemed responsible for 700 deaths since 2013.

Mexican cartels deliver drugs to more cities in the U.S. than any other transnational gang, including those from Asia, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic.

In Mexico, TCOs are largely to blame for the growing number of homicides throughout various parts of the country. La Jornada reported last month that 12 out of every 100,000 people are killed in incidents revolving around organized crime. Social science journals are catching on to the disturbing repercussions of gang activity: On January 5, Health Affairs published a study claiming that the rise in homicides in Mexico since 2005 has, in turn, decreased life expectancy among Mexican males.

The success of Mexican TCOs in the U.S. is attributed to several factors. According to the DEA report, TCOs have devised a supply chain system so complex, it's often impossible for law enforcement to trace drug transporters back to their affiliates. They also use a variety of transportation tactics—from tractor-trailers, cars, boats, planes, and the infamous subterranean tunnels that run beneath the border. One creative strategy devised by the Sinaloa Cartel includes hiring older U.S. citizens to drive tractor-trailers loaded with drugs because they're less susceptible to law enforcement inspection than younger drivers. In Phoenix, Arizona, transporters carry drugs in backpacks and off-road vehicles through expansive and desolate desert and mountain territory.

Not mentioned in the DEA report is the assistance TCOs receive from U.S. law enforcement officials. In the last 10 years, countless U.S. border patrol agents have been arrested for collaborating with drug traffickers. Just this past year, former Texas "Cop of the Year" Noe Juarez, who allegedly had been working with Los Zetas since 2006, was seen on video selling illegal assault rifles to an undercover informant. Back in September, former special deputy Chris Mattingly of Bullitt County, Kentucky, was indicted on charges of trafficking more than 1,000 grams of marijuana and accused of working with Mexican drug cartels.

But its really cartels' alliances with U.S.-based gangs, rather than law enforcement, that give the gangs their power. Mexican TCOs have teamed up with 46 stateside gangs. Los Zetas, for example, are affiliated with 12 gangs, including the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas,  The Crips, and La Eme ("The M"), one of the most violent gangs in the U.S., which primarily operates within prisons, according to Animal Politico. Then there's the Almighty Latin Kings, a gang boasting membership numbers between 20,000 and 35,000 that has collaborated with all seven Mexican TCOs.

Yet what stands out most in the DEA report is the importance of location in the business of drug trafficking. The analysis draws special attention to ports of entry (POE), especially in California. "Some Southern California gang neighborhoods were once so self-contained that they resembled rural villages," the authors write.

However, as Quinones points out, gang presence in Los Angeles is not what it once was. Quinones traced the shift to a handful of techniques adopted by the LAPD to curb gang activity. They enforced gang injunctions—making it illegal for gang members to loiter in groups. They urged officers to get involved in community policing—a method that encourages police to spend less time in their cruisers and more time creating proactive relationships with neighbors.

While those techniques may have reduced gang numbers, the DEA report points to another factor driving down the number of gang members in the city: Many of them have recently relocated. Gangs are moving out of traditional metropolitan areas and settling in more rural and suburban locations such as eastern Washington, western Colorado, and North Carolina. Likewise, the report predicts that Philadelphia and Boston might soon replace Chicago and Los Angeles as prime drug trafficking hubs, as TCOs are eager to stay out of law enforcement's eye.

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Since We Last Spoke examines the latest policy and research updates to past Pacific Standard news coverage.

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