Last February 17th, a mail bomb sent to residents of the northeastern Mexican city of Reynosa promised that the next day would be “a brutal day of violence.” Panic quickly consumed the town of half a million, as citizens braced for the coming terror. In the days that followed, rumors surfaced of “downed helicopters, hundreds of casualties, and military shootouts around school campuses.” These events marked the end of a tentative peace agreement between the Gulf Cartel and their former enforcement wing, the Zetas. The resulting chaos that engulfed Reynosa was reminiscent of a civil war. Similar to Juarez and other Mexican border towns where violence has paralyzed everyday life, drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) in Reynosa are locked in a battle over a coveted point of entry (POE) into the U.S.
As violence mounts in Reynosa, crime is falling just a few miles away in McAllen, Texas. According to the 2010 McAllen Crime Report, the incidence of violent crime in this city has decreased by 14.3% since 2009. While any incidence of cartel-related violence in the U.S. ignites fears that the crime wave will spillover across the border, security has not deteriorated to the same extent on U.S. soil. It is safe to walk around McAllen in the evening without an armed convoy, whereas residents of Reynosa seldom leave the house after 6 p.m. But, the calm we are witnessing in the U.S. is an eerie silence. DTOs do not disappear once they cross the border, they transform.
Rather than utilizing explosive tactics as they do in Mexico, DTOs maintain a low profile once they cross the border into the U.S., lurking in the shadows as they spread their tendrils across almost every state. Based on U.S. drug seizure statistics, most smuggling occurs at only 25 POEs along the border, yet cartels are active in more than 200 U.S. cities. Evading interdiction by law enforcement, especially throughout such an extensive distribution network, requires an incredible amount of effort and coordination on the part of the DTOs. To accomplish this task, cartels employ a wide range of strategies: they form contracts with local gangs for distribution and enforcement, bribe law enforcement officials to escape incarceration, and establish “legitimate” enterprises to launder their profits.
Cartels keep their vendettas on their home turf. In Mexico, clashes between rival DTOs erupt every day, leaving many individuals dead and entire communities wracked by fear. But once across the border, cartels become neutral entities, abstaining from interference in conflicts between competing U.S. gangs. It is in their best interest to ensure that the distribution chains for illicit narcotics run smoothly, yielding the highest profits. They dirty the kitchen, yet behave cordially in the dining hall.
That is not to say Mexican DTOs have become passive observers in the transportation of narcotics throughout hundreds of U.S. cities. In fact, these organizations continue to indirectly exert their influence north of the border, through the infiltration of the U.S. border patrol, the cooptation of politicians and police, and the selective abduction of those caught in their paths.
The U.S. government admits that over the past five years, more than 80 border patrol officers have been arrested for alleged ties to DTOs. In one extreme case, former El Paso customs inspector Margarita Crispin received USD 5 million from the cartels in the three years she worked for the agency, allowing thousands of pounds marijuana to cross the border freely.
Cartels will buy up entire strip malls and restaurants, inviting members of city councils and the police for free meals and discounts. According to Vlademar, a former El Paso sheriff, “they could give an entire city council a million dollars, and fire police chiefs, city managers, city attorneys, and anyone else who opposes them. They got local laws changed so they could run nightclubs, liquor stores and other businesses without interference.”
But arguably the most frightening manifestation of cartels on U.S. soil is their role as kidnappers. In Phoenix Arizona, between 2007 and 2009, there were 826 reported kidnappings, a figure that has risen parallel to the death toll in Mexico. In the U.S., DTOs prefer to snatch their victim in silence, avoiding flagrant displays of force that would reveal the true extent of their presence.
These organizations have the ability to morph from one beast to another, adapting to meet the prudence that each circumstance requires. In Mexico they are territorial rhinos, stomping heavily, leaving once peaceful cities in a state of disarray. Like a spider creeping silently on a web spanning the lower 48 states, the cartels wait patiently before unleashing their venom with systematic precision.
Waging war on a beast with the ability to transform dramatically is a monumentally difficult task, even for two well-equipped and technologically advanced nations. Often it is easier and more attractive to focus on fighting the visible manifestation of the cartels. The Mexican government has increasingly relied on the military as a response to the immediate threat that cartels present to Mexican sovereignty. This strategy may have shaken up cartel leadership, but it escalates violence and has left more than 30,000 dead since 2006. Additionally, Cartels take advantage of the military by provoking sweeps in rival territory in order to temporarily shut down their competitors. No single solution will slay a morphing monster; it needs to be struck from all sides. We must sever its networks among civil society, reduce the profits that sustain it, and prosecute it judiciously. Moreover, we must better coordinate our efforts along both sides of the border in a way that focuses on technological collaboration and institutional reform rather than ostentatious displays of military might. Though they are invisible, we simply cannot operate with the mentality that cartels do not exist in the U.S. and must do all we can to unravel the threads that snake along our highways and into our communities.
Written by COHA Research Associate Trevor Cohen
This is the first of a four part series on the narcotics trade that will discuss the industry from a variety of different angles.