- The Drug Enforcement Administration’s latest report on illicit drugs and drug trafficking details what the agency says is cartel influence in the US.
- Security experts and cartel operatives in Mexico dispute the DEA’s depiction, however, arguing the links are more tenuous than the DEA describes them.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Ciudad Juarez, MEXICO – The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recently released its annual National Drug Threat Assessment, in which it maps out the states where Mexican drug cartels have gained “influence.”
Asked about that depiction of cartel presence in the US, security experts and cartel sources told Insider “it’s bulls—.”
The DEA’s report says Mexican transnational criminal organizations, or TCOs, “maintain great influence” in most US states, with the Sinaloa Cartel and Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion showing the “biggest signs of expansion.”
A map included in the report shows the Sinaloa Cartel, Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion, Cartel del Golfo, Organización de Beltran-Leyva, and Los Rojos as the most “influential” drug organizations with presence in Texas, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Chicago, New York, Florida, Kansas, Colorado, Hawaii and Puerto Rico, among other states.
“Mexican TCOs continue to control lucrative smuggling corridors, primarily across the SWB [Southwest Border], and maintain the greatest drug trafficking influence in the United States,” the report says.
But operatives for the Sinaloa Cartel and Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion interviewed by Insider said their criminal organizations maintain “only clients or helpers” across the border and “not members of our organization.”
“You would never see anyone in the US saying they are part of the organization [Sinaloa Cartel], because that is bulls—. The members and leaders of the organization are in Mexico, not in the US. What we have there are clients or associates, people helping transport, or gang members working with us,” a Sinaloa Cartel operative told Insider.
The operative explained that most of the gangs or “associates” in the US work as independents.
“We wholesale to them and what they do to that merchandise is their problem. We don’t give a f—. They can loose it, sell it, snort it, whatever, as long as they pay up,” he said.
One of the most prominent cases used to prove Mexican cartels’ presence in the US was that of Pedro and Margarito Flores, two brothers from Chicago accused of importing cocaine for the Sinaloa Cartel.
The Flores brothers admitted to smuggling at least 1,500 kgs of cocaine for the Sinaloa cartel into the US every month between 2005 and 2008. According to their guilty pleas, they also sent more than $930 million in “bulk cash” back to the cartel in Mexico.
US authorities allege the brothers were part of the Sinaloa Cartel, but a phone call of a negotiation with then-Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman that was made public during Guzman‘s trial in 2018 revealed Flores brothers bargaining over the price of a 20 kg shipment of heroin.
“Do you think we can work something out where you can deduct five pesos from those for me?” said a man identified as Pedro Flores.
“How much are you going to pay for it?” said the other man on the call, allegedly Guzman.
‘It just doesn’t make sense’
Alejandro Hope, a security analyst in Mexico and former official with CISEN, Mexico’s top security intelligence organization, said the DEA warns of Mexican drug cartels being active in the US in order “to keep asking for money.”
“It’s DEA’s bulls—. They have been doing this for years, and it just doesn’t make sense. Cartels today are not structured [like] a hierarchy organization, but more like a decentralized network,” Hope told Insider.
“The logic behind the DEA [report] is to argue there is an invasion of external forces so they can justify more budget and support from the US,” he said.
Neither DEA headquarters nor its offices in Texas and Arizona responded to requests for comment on the map.
The report describes the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion as “one of the fastest growing cartels” and says the organization “smuggles illicit drugs into the United States by accessing various trafficking corridors in northern Mexico along the SWB including Tijuana, Juarez and Nuevo Laredo.”
“The cartels dominate the drug trade influencing the United States market, with most cartels having a poly drug market approach that allows for maximum flexibility and resiliency of their operations,” the report states.
The report doesn’t describe how these organizations maintain their presence in the US.
“The DEA has a problem with semantics. What does influence actually mean? What does presence even mean? An associate is no other thing but a client,” Hope said.
An operative for Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion said the organization maintained a large group of members in Mexico who are “mostly on the armed side of the operations,” while most contacts in the US were clients.
“Most of what we can call members of the Jalisco organization are on the arms [side], like sicarios, and some producers that are on a payroll, but everyone else is either a client we are selling to or an association to have access to certain route” for distribution in the US, he said.
Some intelligence officials believe Mexican cartels do have a real presence on US soil but function differently there.
“The substantial difference is that drug criminal enterprises are not displaying force at the border with the US because it is not needed. We should take into account that keeping a low profile is good for their activities and business, just as any other corporation,” said a high-level foreign intelligence official in Mexico who asked for anonymity.
The official said cartel associates in the US have something like membership, even if they aren’t part of the cartel structure, and “are using the brand” to prove their drugs’ quality.
“We need to consider that they act just as another transnational company, with their level of organization, distribution, reach, and territory control. They do have a presence in the US in how their drug has a brand backing up certain quality,” the official said.