DEA Takes Stock of Operation Aimed at Sinaloa, Juarez Cartels

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The DEA has released the results of a two-year-long investigation into the international connections of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel and Juarez Cartel, which it says resulted in nearly 4,000 arrests and the seizure of six tons of cocaine, among other drugs. 

On December 6, the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) announced the end of “Project Below the Beltway,” an operation that began in May 2010 and focused on two of the top drug trafficking organizations in Mexico: the Sinaloa and Juarez Cartels. The operation included investigations in major cities in the United States, as well as Central America, South America and Europe.

According to the DEA’s press release, 3,780 suspects were arrested as part of the project, and the initiative resulted in the seizure of 6,100 kilograms of cocaine, 4,464 kilograms of methamphetamine and 158 kilograms of marijuana. Associated investigations also led to the seizure of $148 million dollars in cash and $38 million dollars in other assets.

InSight Crime Analysis

In truth, it’s hard to tell who is part of which Mexican cartel these days, especially in countries outside of Mexico. These organizations are more disperse and operate more horizontally than hierarchically. Control of the entire distribution chain — from point of production to point of sale — is nearly impossible. So the claims that all those arrested absolutely pertain to these organizations rings hollow, however impressive the sheer number remains. 

The timing of the announcement is also somewhat surprising, as the DEA usually only releases the results of such long term investigations if it ends with the arrest of a high-profile criminal figure, it is prompted by a congressional oversight hearing, or it is about to present its yearly results to Congress in an effort to boost funding or manpower. No such kingpin was recently arrested for either cartel, and there are no upcoming hearings for the DEA. (The last House Oversight Committee meeting for the DEA was in June.)

One reason for the announcement could be a change in Mexico’s political climate. Former President Felipe Calderon stepped down on December 1. He was succeeded by Enrique Peña Nieto, and it may be that the DEA was unsure about continuing with such an ambitious operation with the new administration, an untested variable.

On the other hand, it may also be that the operation simply ran its course. The arrest of 3,780 people is significant, and law enforcement scored several points against both of these criminal organizations since 2010. The Juarez Cartel has become severely weakened, and a number of Sinaloa figures were taken down druring this time, including the right hand man of the Sinaloa Cartel’s Ismael Zambada Garcia, alias “El Mayo” (who remains at large). Whether these achievements occurred as a result of the US operation, however, is not clear.

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