Business, Finance & Economics

Mexico cartels extend US reach

Prison gangs have taken on a bigger role in the US side of the trade.
Credit: Kevork Djansezian

LOS ANGELES, Calif. — As dawn broke, police smashed down doors of 52 different houses across California to discover automatic rifles, a grenade launcher and 20 kilos of cocaine, allegedly smuggled by Mexican cartels into the United States.

The cocaine and guns seized in the raids, which happened last month, were in the possession of members of a California motorcycle gang.

Mexican cartels have long operated in the US and forged ties on a smaller level with American gangs, using them to sell drugs on street corners. A report by the National Drug Intelligence Center said that Mexican cartels already operate in more than 1,000 US cities — or almost every urban area in the US.

But this recent bust, the culmination of an 18-month probe codenamed “Operation Simple Green,” underscores one of many ways that Mexican drug cartels have strengthened their ties with American gangs, broadening their reach into the US and changing the dynamics of the US-Mexican drug trade.

The development comes amid fears that the relentless drug violence in Mexico could spill over the Rio Grande.

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Mexican cartels are, in fact, dealing more directly with American gangs, rather than going through middlemen as they have traditionally done, according to a new report by the US government’s National Gang Intelligence Center.

This shift follows the logic of the market place. Mexican cartels, the biggest trafficking organizations in the Americas, have used their power and money to grow bigger still, eating up smaller players. In the new dynamics, street gangsters have been hooked up directly with the criminal empires.

A closer relationship

Among the American gangs drawing closer to the Mexican crime armies are several Latino mobs such as the Barrio Azteca, which was formed in Texas prisons, and the Mexican Mafia, or “Eme,” which is dominated by Californians of Mexican descent.

However, Mexican cartels also work with African-American gangs, and even white supremacists groups such as the Aryan Brotherhood, the report said.

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“The prospect of financial gain is resulting in the suspension of traditional racial and ideological division among US prison gangs, providing (Mexican cartels) the means to further expand their influence over drug trafficking in the United States.”

With the closer links, Mexican gangsters are getting American street gangs to carry out more jobs for them beyond the traditional drug selling on street corners, the report said.

The cartels now “use street- and prison-gang members in Texas and California to protect smuggling routes, collect debts, transport illicit goods, including drugs and weapons, and execute rival traffickers,” it said. They pay the gangs in money and drugs.

Fears of violence spreading

Residents of American border states have feared the spread of the drug war since killings in Mexico shot up in 2008.

So far, that hasn’t happened. Border cities in the U.S. are still among the safest in America despite the warfare next door.

In El Paso, for example, there were only five homicides in 2010 — compared to more than 3,000 killings over the river in Ciudad Juarez.

American police officers say that Mexican gangsters are cautious about sparking violence in the US because they don’t want to attract further scrutiny of their lucrative business. The cartels make $30 billion every year selling marijuana, cocaine, heroin and crystal meth to American users, according the US government estimates.

In the past, when the Mexican cartels have carried out gangland hits in the US, police have hit back hard, with raids and arrests followed by long prison sentences.

“We have better coordination and back up than the Mexican police. If we are threatened in the US, we can quickly get a helicopter with guys with submachine guns or a SWAT team to the scene,” said John Sullivan, a lieutenant at the Los Angeles country Sheriff’s Department and senior research fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies on Terrorism.

Cartels extend their reach

A recent report by the National Drug Intelligence Center said that American officials expect Mexican cartels to continue expanding their reach into the US in coming years.

Just last week, authorities seized thousands of pounds of drugs in Arizona, capturing 76 people with alleged ties to the powerful Sinaloa cartel.

The huge ring had been smuggling marijuana, heroin and cocaine from Mexico to stash houses in Phoenix, netting about $2 billion in the past five years, officials said.

“The Mexican-based organizations’ pre-eminence derives from a competitive advantage based on several factors, including access to and control of smuggling routes across the U.S. Southwest Border and the capacity to produce (or obtain), transport, and distribute nearly every major illicit drug of abuse in the United Status,” says the report by the National Drug Intelligence Center.

“These advantages are unlikely to change significantly in the short term, ensuring the dominance of Mexican (cartels) for at least the next several years.”

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