Beyond the Border: Measuring Mexican Cartels’ Influence in the US

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While little is known about the activity of Mexican drug cartels in the U.S., a Department of Justice report released last month suggests that they are dominated by one group: “El Chapo’s” Sinaloa Cartel.

Although an emphasis on supply reduction has been a cornerstone of U.S. drug policy ever since the inception of the “war on drugs,” numerous studies over the past three decades have indicated that interdiction efforts have failed to significantly decrease the flow of narcotics into the country.

Now, a report released in August by the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) has joined their ranks, claiming that overall drug availability is increasing. According to the 2011 National Drug Threat Assessment, “heroin, marijuana, MDMA [otherwise known as ecstasy] and methamphetamine are readily available throughout the United States, and their availability is increasing in some markets.” The only exception to the trend is cocaine, which remains less available than it was prior to 2007, a year which drug officials claim to have caused a supply reduction. As InSight Crime has reported, however, the evidence for this drop is not decisive.

Not surprisingly, the report shows that the southern border continues to act as a gateway for the vast majority of these drugs. As it turns out, however, the quantity and type of drug smuggled across the border varies by location. Whereas remote areas along the southern Arizona border are the site of large-scale shipments of marijuana, the NDIC claims this does not apply to all drugs.

Instead, smugglers of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine prefer to bring in their product in multiple, smaller shipments through border checkpoints in Texas and California. This means that a certain percentage will always be caught, but drug trafficking organizations rely on secret compartments, the law of averages and pay-offs to ensure that enough of the drugs get through to meet the level of wholesale demand in the U.S.

Some of the most interesting findings of the report, however, have to do with the division of these distribution networks. According to the NDIC, Mexican groups solidified their hegemony over the drug market over the past year, continuing to edge out their competitors from places like Colombia and the Dominican Republic.

But not all Mexican groups have equal control over the market. Indeed, their influence on U.S. drug supply has much to do with to their relative power in Mexico. Just as the Sinaloa Cartel is the most powerful drug trafficking organization in that country, the group — led by Joaquin Guzman, alias “El Chapo” — has the most distribution connections in the U.S.

The report’s authors found that of the seven major main drug trafficking organizations operating in the U.S., (the Sinaloa Cartel, the Zetas, the Gulf Cartel, the Juarez Cartel, the Beltran Leyva Organization, the La Familia Michoacana and the·Tijuana Cartel), the Sinaloa Cartel is the only one which traffics drugs to every single region of the country. As the diagram produced by Mexican daily El Universal below illustrates, the Zetas — who are perceived as the Sinaloans’ nearest competitors in Mexico — have distribution networks in only the Southwest, Southeast and the Great Lakes regions. ·They also lag behind the Sinaloa Cartel in the drugs they traffic. While the Zetas are limited to distributing mostly cocaine and marijuana, the Sinaloans move all the major types of major drug northward.

Still, it should be noted that the report does not represent a complete assessment of Mexican cartels’ relative power. For instance, the NDIC also claims that both the Juarez and Gulf Cartels, which are each considered to be past their prime, surpass the Zetas in their geographic spread. This is likely a product of the Zetas’ modus operandi. The group generally does not possess a firm organizational structure, and owes its influence more to muscling its way into the networks of other groups than to its own connections.

Ultimately, the NDIC report should be taken as a reminder that Mexico’s “drug war” is not as insulated from the U.S. as many suppose. If Mexican cartels have criminal connections in the country, then it is not hard to imagine that these organizations could extend their activities beyond the mere wholesale distribution of illicit drugs. InSight Crime has previously documented a deepening of connections with local street gangs, a development that that has local law enforcement worried.


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