Sunday, March 9, 2014
By Michael Tarm / The Associated Press
CHICAGO — Mexican drug cartels whose operatives once rarely ventured beyond the U.S. border are dispatching some of their most trusted agents to live and work deep inside the United States – an emboldened presence that experts believe is meant to tighten their grip on the world's most lucrative narcotics market and maximize profits.
This photo dated 2007 from federal court documents shows Jose Gonzales-Zavala with two of his children. Prosecutors say Gonzales-Zavala was a member of the La Familia cartel, based in Mexico, and was dispatched to the Chicago area to oversee one of the cartel’s lucrative trafficking cells. His defense team entered the photograph into evidence in arguing for leniency in his case. In 2011, he was sentenced to 40 years in prison by a federal judge in Chicago.
The Associated Press
Bales of marijuana are wheeled out at a news conference in Jonesboro, Ga., in 2010, when 45 people were arrested and cash, guns and more than two tons of drugs were seized as part of an investigation by federal and local law enforcement into the Atlanta-area U.S. distribution hub of Mexico’s La Familia drug cartel.
2010 Associated Press File Photo
If left unchecked, authorities say, the cartels' move into the American interior could render the syndicates harder than ever to dislodge and pave the way for them to expand into other criminal enterprises such as prostitution, kidnapping-and-extortion rackets and money laundering.
Cartel activity in the U.S. is certainly not new. Starting in the 1990s, the ruthless syndicates became the nation's No. 1 supplier of illegal drugs, using unaffiliated middlemen to smuggle cocaine, marijuana and heroin beyond the border or even to grow pot here.
But a wide-ranging Associated Press review of federal court cases and government drug-enforcement data, plus interviews with many top law enforcement officials, indicate the groups have begun deploying agents from their inner circles to the U.S. Cartel operatives are suspected of running drug-distribution networks in at least nine non-border states, often in middle-class suburbs in the Midwest, South and Northeast.
"It's probably the most serious threat the United States has faced from organized crime," said Jack Riley, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Chicago office.
PUBLIC ENEMY NO. 1
The cartel threat looms so large that one of Mexico's most notorious drug kingpins – a man who has never set foot in Chicago – was recently named the city's Public Enemy No. 1, the same notorious label once assigned to Al Capone.
The Chicago Crime Commission, a non-government agency that tracks crime trends in the region, said it considers Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman even more menacing than Capone because Guzman leads the deadly Sinaloa cartel, which supplies most of the narcotics sold in Chicago and in many cities across the U.S.
Years ago, Mexico faced the same problem – of then-nascent cartels expanding their power – "and didn't nip the problem in the bud," said Jack Killorin, head of an anti-trafficking program in Atlanta for the Office of National Drug Control Policy. "And see where they are now."
Riley sounds a similar alarm: "People think, 'The border's 1,700 miles away. This isn't our problem.' Well, it is. These days, we operate as if Chicago is on the border."
Border states from Texas to California have long grappled with a cartel presence. But cases involving cartel members have now emerged in the suburbs of Chicago and Atlanta, as well as Columbus, Ohio, Louisville, Ky., and rural North Carolina. Suspects have also surfaced in Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania.
Mexican drug cartels "are taking over our neighborhoods," Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane warned a legislative committee in February. State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan disputed her claim, saying cartels are primarily drug suppliers, not the ones trafficking drugs on the ground.
For years, cartels were more inclined to make deals in Mexico with American traffickers, who would then handle transportation to and distribution within major cities, said Art Bilek, a former organized crime investigator who is now executive vice president of the crime commission.
CUT OUT AMERICAN MIDDLEMEN
As their organizations grew more sophisticated, the cartels began scheming to keep more profits for themselves. So leaders sought to cut out middlemen and assume more direct control, pushing aside American traffickers, he said.
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This 2009 photo provided by the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department in Lawrenceville, Ga., shows reputed cartel operative Socorro Hernandez-Rodriguez after his arrest in a suburb of Atlanta. Hernandez-Rodriguez was later convicted of sweeping drug trafficking charges. Prosecutors said he was a high-ranking figure in the La Familia cartel, sent to the U.S. to run a drug cell.
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Jack Riley, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Chicago, points out local Mexican drug cartel problem areas on a map in the new interagency Strike Force office in Chicago. Looking on is DEA agent Vince Balbo. The ruthless syndicates have long been the nation's No. 1 supplier of illegal drugs, but in the past, their operatives rarely ventured beyond the border.