Mexico's drug cartel moves to U.S.
Atlanta a hub for East Coast; violence is following, but to a lesser extent
By Jeremy Schwartz
Cox International Correspondent
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Mexico City — A series of drug-related kidnappings in Gwinnett County is part of the emergence locally of what federal authorities say is a problem of national scope: powerful Mexican drug cartels whose tactics have been honed in years of bloody conflicts in their home country.
They say the cartels operate in dozens of U.S. cities, including metro Atlanta, and are moving to consolidate their control of the entire supply chain of illegal drugs.
The Justice Department says that in the Atlanta area, Mexican trafficking organizations already control the lucrative methamphetamine trade, with the arrival of purer Mexican ice methamphetamine supplanting local powder meth production.
In violence associated with the cartels, Gwinnett has seen at least nine drug-related kidnappings this year, including a man who was bound and chained in a basement in Lilburn and repeatedly beaten over an alleged $300,000 drug debt.
David Nahmias, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, said the Atlanta area is considered especially enticing to the cartels because it is a convenient distribution hub for the highly profitable East Coast market.
For now, the cartel-related violence remains contained within the organizations and is not affecting the larger community, said Jack Killorin, head of the federal Atlanta High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force.
"We're not seeing violence across the cartels," he said. "They're just not in conflict. Some people would say that at this end of the distribution chain, they're more interested in cooperating and making money than in conflict. Others would say there's plenty to go around so there's no need for conflict."
Evidence of that plenty came in December, when local and federal agencies targeted two Mexican trafficking organizations, seizing more than 200 pounds of cocaine, 17 pounds of methamphetamine and as much as $10 million in cash. Officials said the groups used metro Atlanta as the distribution point for drugs smuggled from Mexico and for cash waiting to be smuggled back to Mexico.
Killorin said the two groups were affiliated with the Federation, one of two dominant Mexican drug cartels among the seven Mexican officials have identified.
The Federation is also known as the Sinaloa Cartel because it is based in the Pacific Coast state dubbed the Sicily of Mexico because it is the birthplace of many of Mexico's most important drug lords. Its leader is Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, Mexico's most notorious drug capo, who attained an almost mythical stature after escaping from a federal prison in 2001.
In recent months, the Federation, which officials say controls Pacific smuggling routes from Central America, has been torn apart by an internal feud that they say may be responsible for a spike in violence in Sinaloa and its capital, Culiacan.
Killorin said the Federation in recent years has eclipsed the Gulf Cartel as the predominant organization in the Southeastern United States. The Gulf Cartel, headquartered in the border town of Matamoros, once controlled East Coast operations but has been engaged in a brutal war with the Federation for years.
Ricardo Ravelo, the author of several books on Mexican cartels and an investigative reporter for Proceso magazine --- an influential muckraking journal which has criticized the Mexican government's effort to fight the cartels --- said the Federation is well organized on the American side of the border.
"I'm talking about distribution as well as the collection of profits, money laundering and smuggling money back to Mexico," Ravelo said.
Nationwide, the Mexican cartels "are the dominant distributors of wholesale quantities of cocaine in the United States, and no other group is positioned to challenge them in the near term," said the Justice Department's 2008 National Drug Threat Assessment.
"Their idea is to control the whole economic process of production and distribution," said Georgina Sanchez, an independent security consultant in Mexico and executive director of a public safety think tank.
While in some areas of the United States the cartels have entered into partnerships with local gangs, in others they have directly assumed control of local drug distribution, analysts say.
The Zetas, former Mexican soldiers who have become the armed wing of the Gulf Cartel, have been linked to killings along the Texas side of the border and as far north as Dallas, according to court records and press accounts. The Sinaloa Cartel has been linked to the Houston drug trade. And in Phoenix, suspected Mexican traffickers dressed as Phoenix Police SWAT officers recently attacked a home with high-caliber weapons.
"The violence in [American] cities has a direct cause and effect related to what is taking place in Mexico," said Fred Burton, vice president for counterterrorism at Stratfor, an Austin, Texas-based private intelligence company.
"The farther north you go from the border, the less that is understood," said Burton, a member of the Texas Border Security Council. The group focuses on homeland security and economic development along the Texas-Mexico border.
The biggest worry for local law enforcement agencies is that the cartels will bring with them violent methods honed during furious cartel wars in Mexico that have left about 5,000 dead since 2006. In recent years, Mexican drug violence has reached new heights, featuring beheadings, videotaped executions shown on the Internet and the assassination of top Mexican officials.
In the past decade, Mexican cartels have surpassed Colombian traffickers as the ascendant force in the hemisphere, moving into the United States and also taking control of Central American trafficking routes and dominating the market in South American countries like Peru, according to law enforcement officials.
"It's all a question of business," said Carlos Humberto Toledo, a military affairs expert in Mexico City. "The American market represents the biggest consumer in the world, and all the cartels are focused on it."
Analysts fear the cartels will bring not just drug violence, but peripheral cash-generating crime like kidnapping, extortion and protection rackets --- problems that are common in Mexico.
Burton said there has already been an alarming spike in kidnappings along the Texas border. "We don't know how many have been kidnapped, but guesstimates by local law enforcement puts abductions in border towns at four to eight a week," Burton said. "They are snatched in the U.S. and taken to Mexico."
Sanchez said kidnapping in the U.S. could be particularly attractive to the cartels because they may be able to demand more money than they do in Mexico.
"The U.S. will begin to see a little of the same conflict that is happening in Mexico," Sanchez said. "If [the cartels] already have methods, and ways of diversifying into other crimes, it's normal that they won't stop at the border."
But experts say it's unlikely the U.S. will see the type of large-scale drug wars that have paralyzed various Mexican cities and forced President Felipe Calderon to send about 25,000 federal troops to confront the cartels.
Toledo, the military affairs analyst, said the cartels will continue to fight their major battles within Mexico. And less corruption and more effective law enforcement make it impossible for large cartels to flourish on American soil, he said.
"In the U.S., there will be violence, but it's local, decentralized, a small dose compared to Mexico," he said. "The American system is much more effective in combating drug distribution."
MEXICAN DRUG CARTELS
The Gulf Cartel
Based in Matamoros in the state of Tamaulipas along the Texas border, it has been one of Mexico's two dominant cartels in recent years. It has been strengthened by its armed wing called the Zetas, highly trained military deserters blamed for bringing new levels of savagery to the drug wars.
The result of a 2006 accord between several groups located in the Pacific state of Sinaloa, it also is called the Sinaloa Cartel. U.S. officials say the Federation has become the dominant drug trafficking organization in the Southeast, taking control from the Gulf Cartel.
Sources: Stratfor, Congressional Research Service