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Mexican cartels tighten iron grip on US drug markets

By David Amoruso

Mexican criminal organizations are the biggest drug threat to the United States, the 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment by the DEA reports. They already are the primary suppliers of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana, but continue to ramp up production and trafficking to flood drug markets in the U.S. “These groups are responsible for much of the extreme violence seen in Mexico, as they battle for turf and attack public officials and innocent civilians.”

With Mexico neighboring the United States and plenty of its nationals living and working in the U.S., it is no wonder Mexican criminal organizations have managed to tighten their already iron grip on the nation’s drug markets. The 1,954 mile-long border separating the two countries is easily penetrated by smugglers as evidenced by the estimated 300 million illegal crossings each year.

Authorities have noted the presence of the following cartels on American soil: the Beltran-Leyva organization, the New Generation Jalisco Cartel (Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación), Los Cuinis, the Gulf Cartel (Cartel del Golfo), the Juarez Cartel, Michoacán Family (La Familia Michoacána), Knights Templar (Los Caballeros Templarios), Los Zetas, and the Sinaloa Cartel.

While all of them transport wholesale quantities of illicit drugs into the United States, the Sinaloa cartel appears to be the most active supplier. It leverages its expansive resources and dominance in Mexico to facilitate the smuggling and transportation of drugs throughout the United States. The recent prison break by the cartel’s leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman (right) has only helped to increase its dominant reputation and turn it into reality.

Working directly with street gangs in the United States, these Mexican cartels manage to easily distribute their smuggled product to American customers. The report calls this affiliation with homegrown gangs “a significant threat to the safety and security of our communities.”

The chart below shows which gangs and Cartels were affiliated.

The report found that drug overdose deaths are the leading cause of injury death in the United States, ahead of deaths from motor vehicle accidents and firearms. In 2013, more than 46,000 people in the United States died from a drug overdose. "Sadly this report confirms what we’ve known for some time: drug abuse is ending too many lives too soon and destroying families and communities,” DEA Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg said.

More than half of those overdoses were caused by prescription painkillers and heroin.

SMACK

The threat posed by heroin in the United States is serious and has increased since 2007. Heroin is available in larger quantities, used by a larger number of people, and is causing an increasing number of overdose deaths.

Mexico is the primary supplier of heroin to the United States. Opium poppy cultivation in Mexico has increased significantly in recent years reaching 17,000 hectares in 2014, with an estimated pure potential production of 42 metric tons of heroin. This increase was driven in part by Mexican organizations’ shift to meet the high demand for heroin in the United States.

Once the product arrives in the United States it will be “milled,” which means that the wholesale quantities are broken down and packaged into mid-level and retail quantities. These “mills” are usually a private home or apartment where members of the trafficking organization break the heroin down into smaller quantities. These so-called heroin baggers can be paid as much as several thousand dollars per shipment for their labor. Kilogram- and pound-sized blocks are broken down using blenders or food processors, and diluents and adulterants such as lactose, mannitol, and quinine are added to the heroin. The heroin is then repackaged for mid-level or retail sale.

Mexican traffickers are expanding their operations to gain a larger share of heroin markets on the East Coast. They already control many markets on the West Coast, however, heroin use in the United States is much more prevalent in the Northeast and Midwest areas. The largest, most lucrative heroin markets in the United States are those in major eastern cities: New York City and the surrounding metropolitan areas, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston and its surrounding cities, Detroit, Washington, DC, and Baltimore.

Mexican cartels are now the most prominent wholesale-level heroin traffickers in the Chicago, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC, areas, and have greatly expanded their presence in the New York City area.

METH

Known as the poor man’s cocaine, methamphetamine has become a booming business in the United States. Most of the meth seized here is clandestinely produced in Mexico and smuggled across the Southwest Border. This meth continues to be highly pure and potent as Mexican cartels have adapted to precursor restrictions on pseudoephedrine by switching to producing the drug using the reductive amination method. This method calls for the use of phenyl-2-proponone (P2P) instead of pseudoephedrine.

Mexican cartels control wholesale meth distribution, while both Mexican and Caucasian criminal groups typically control retail distribution. However, African American criminal groups have been increasingly involved in the retail distribution of methamphetamine in some areas of the United States.

The report expects that trafficking and use of meth will increase in the coming years as long as the cocaine market remains dry.

COCAINE

Cocaine use has been on a steady decline in the United States when compared to the previous decade. The availability of coke in the United States also remained at historically lower levels in 2014. This forces distributors to increasingly cut cocaine in order for them to stretch supplies and meet demand. Distributors sell this less potent cocaine at higher prices in an effort to make up for lost profits. Cocaine distributors also compete against meth dealers who sell a cheaper and more potent alternative.

Most of the cocaine available in the United States is produced in Colombia by remnants of the infamous cartels, which continue to dominate the market thanks to their longstanding partnerships with Mexican cartels which transport the coke across the border. It is estimated that there was a 30 percent increase in potential pure cocaine production in Colombia between 2013 and 2014, from 185 metric tons to 245 metric tons.

The majority of cocaine destined for US markets is transported across the Southwest Border via Mexico in kilogram quantities. After the cocaine is smuggled across the US–Mexico Border, it is moved to major hub cities in Arizona, California, and Texas near the Southwest Border. The cocaine is then transported via interstate highways to the Midwest and East Coast, to include major hub cities such as Atlanta, Chicago, and New York, where it is distributed down the line to various street gangs.

LIGHTING UP WITH SOME MARY JANE

While Mexican cartels have defeated the competition in almost every drug market in every American city, they are playing a game of catch-up against American producers when it comes to marijuana.

Marijuana is the most widely available and commonly used illicit drug in the United States. And though it remains illegal under federal law, many states have passed legislation approving the cultivation, possession, and use of marijuana within their respective states.

The rise of medical marijuana and retail marijuana shops in states where the drug is legalized saw a major increase in the quality of the product. The quality of marijuana is measured by the average THC content, which has steadily increased not just at legitimate dealerships but also at illegal distributors who aim to keep up.

In 1995, the average THC potency of traditional leafy marijuana seizures was around 4 percent; the average THC potency was 12.05 percent in 2013. Partial year data for 2014 indicate the average THC potency in 2014 (11.80%) was consistent with 2013.

Marijuana that is smuggled from Mexico is typically classified as “commercial-grade” or “low-grade” marijuana. The quality of marijuana produced in Mexico and the Caribbean is thought to be inferior to the marijuana produced domestically in the United States, or in Canada; however, law enforcement reporting indicates that Mexican cartels are attempting to produce higher-quality marijuana to keep up with American demand for high-quality marijuana.

There was a 23.6 percent decline in the total weight of marijuana seizures along the Southwest Border from 2013 to 2014. The reasons for this decline are not well defined and remain unclear; cartel intentions and the possible impact of domestic legalization initiatives are continuing intelligence gaps relative to the levels of Mexican marijuana entering the United States.

It should be noted that Mexico remains the most significant foreign source for marijuana in the United States and, despite the decline, marijuana seizures along the Southwest Border totaled over 984,600 kilograms in 2014. Most of the marijuana seized by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) occurs in the Tucson, Arizona, “West Desert Corridor,” which is controlled by the Sinaloa Cartel. According to the DEA, marijuana will remain abundant in the United States; use will remain high and will increase as perceptions of the drug’s harmfulness diminish.

STAYING ONE STEP AHEAD OF THE LAW

A lot of work goes into the drug business. Producing the crop, smuggling it to distributors, getting it to customers. But all that work could be for undone if police smell a whiff of that dope. Drug cartels realize this all too well, especially in the United States where law enforcement is very serious about fighting crime. That is why the cartels have changed strategies to outmaneuver American justice, they hope.

Law enforcement reporting indicates some Mexican trafficking organizations within the United States are relocating from major metropolitan areas to establish bases of operation in suburban or rural areas. Traffickers are relocating because they feel they can better conceal their operations in an area where law enforcement does not expect to find large trafficking organizations operating or are not accustomed to dealing with such organizations.

The relocation also makes it difficult for large federal law enforcement agencies to target these organizations because the traffickers are removed from the federal agencies’ bases of operation in large cities. This trend has been noted by law enforcement in Dallas, San Francisco, eastern Washington State, western Colorado, and parts of North Carolina.

Whether this tactic will be successful remains to be seen. For now, the DEA thinks that Mexican drug cartels will continue to dominate the trafficking of heroin, meth, cocaine, and marijuana throughout the United States, serving as wholesale supplier to distance themselves from law enforcement, and relying on American gangs for distribution at retail level.

There are no other organizations at this time with the infrastructure and power to challenge Mexican cartels for control of the U.S. drug market.

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