- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 7, 2009

ATLANTA | Long before metro Atlanta became one of their major hubs, Mexican cartels quietly burrowed into cities throughout the U.S.

In many ways, their rise can be traced back to one of the largest drug busts in U.S. history.

In 1989, the Colombian drug cartels, whose violence and corrupting influence set the standard for today’s Mexican cartels, controlled the lucrative cocaine trade.

Mexican drug-trafficking organizations, lacking the power and bankrolls of their Colombian counterparts, mainly served as smugglers for the Colombians’ cocaine.

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But a business dispute between one group of Colombian dealers and Mexican smugglers led the Mexicans to hold 21 tons of cocaine in a Los Angeles warehouse as collateral.

The Drug Enforcement Administration raided the warehouse after receiving a tip from a neighbor who was suspicious of the tractor-trailer traffic in the mostly residential area of the city’s Sylmar district.

The street value of the cocaine was estimated at more than $7 billion, and the New York Times reported that if stacked together the bricks would have been as large as two school buses.

Authorities said the warehouse was run by a retired Mexican customs inspector and was linked to the Juarez Cartel, which, along with the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels, is among Mexico’s most powerful.

The DEA says that after the bust the Colombians and Mexicans changed the way they did business.

“Essentially after that seizure they began paying the Mexicans in product, so for every two kilos you smuggle across, you get one,” said Rodney Benson, special agent in charge of DEA’s Atlanta Field Division. “They began going into the cocaine market and then, over time, you could see how they just began to establish infrastructures in a lot of cities east of the Mississippi and expanded operations in the West as well.”

At the same time, the U.S. and Colombian authorities worked together to knock out the cartels. One of the most effective tools was the extradition of suspects to the U.S. Others among the cartel leaders, most notably Pablo Escobar of the Medellin Cartel, were killed in the South American country as part of U.S.-backed crackdowns.

The Mexican cartels have a knack for filling voids.

For example, earlier in this decade, methamphetamine was largely a home-grown problem, with highly toxic home laboratories making small amounts. Authorities attacked the problem by limiting the sale of ephedrine and psuedoephedrine, over-the-counter drugs commonly used in cold medications that are also key ingredients of methamphetamine.

“We knocked that problem out largely through legislation,” said U.S. Attorney David Nahmias, whose district includes the metro Atlanta area. But he added that in the past few years, “the Mexican cartels started bringing in meth of higher quality, bigger amounts and lower price, by the tens and hundreds of pounds.”

They also employ targeted marketing.

When they wanted to increase their share of the black-tar heroin market, according to Mr. Benson, cartel workers began showing up in cities around the country giving out free samples at methadone clinics.

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