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Drug cartels shift gears in era of legal weed


CBP officers discovered 9.5 pounds of heroin in a hidden compartment of a Chevy 2500 pickup truck at the Santa Teresa border crossing October 13th. A drug sniffing dog alerted officers to where the drugs were concealed. (Courtesy US Customs and Border Protection)

SANTA TERESA — As more U.S. states legalize marijuana, Mexican drug trafficking organizations are making up for lost business and profits by shifting their focus to smuggling hard drugs like heroin and methamphetamine across the border.

“We’re becoming more and more self-sufficient for marijuana,” said David Shirk, director of the Justice in Mexico project at the University of San Diego, in a phone interview. “The decriminalizing is reducing the profitably of illicit marijuana from Mexico.”

In the last three years, the amount of marijuana seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers at border crossings and international bridges has fallen by nearly half — from 602,795 pounds in 2015 to 338,676 pounds in 2017.

During the same time period, methamphetamine smuggling steadily climbed from 29,001 pounds seized at border crossings in 2015 to 44,065 in 2017.

Separately, agents with the Border Patrol also saw a spike in methamphetamine from 6,443 pounds in 2015 to 10,328 this year.

Border Patrol agent E. Gamez stops to coordinate plans with other agents as they begin a patrol near the Animas Mountains in southwestern New Mexico’s Bootheel. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

“The more you legalize marijuana, the more other drugs matter and become more profitable,” said Arturo Fontes, a former FBI agent and expert on Mexico’s drug cartels, in a phone interview. “And right now nothing matters more than meth, heroin. This is why we’re seeing such a bloody year.”

Mexico is on track to set a record for murders. Authorities are projecting an estimated 27,000 drug-related killings by the end of 2017.

A new law awaiting Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s signature would allow the use of the military to police the streets in regions ravaged by drug violence, a move opposed by human rights organizations.

The rise of Mexico as a leading source for methamphetamine came after the U.S. in 2006 banned over-the-counter sales of pseudoephedrine, an ingredient used in some cold and allergy medicines that is needed to make meth.

Meanwhile, the opioid crisis in the U.S. is fueling demand for heroin from Mexico as Americans addicted to prescription medication search for alternatives when they can no longer get a prescription for the painkillers or afford them.

At the same time, more states in the U.S. are decriminalizing marijuana for medical and recreational use and allowing American growers to supply patients and customers legally.

So Mexican drug cartels have adapted by moving more meth and heroin through official border crossings, where smaller amounts of potent drugs can be concealed in vehicles with hidden compartments.

“Also drug organizations will often try to use body carriers to transport even smaller-sized loads of drugs across the ports of entry,” said Roger Maier, CBP spokesman for the El Paso Field Office, which includes all of New Mexico.

The amount of heroin seized by CBP officers at border crossings in the region nearly doubled, from 45 pounds in 2015 to 85 pounds this fiscal year.

Drug traffickers traditionally avoid the official border crossing points and haul large loads of marijuana across remote stretches of borderland.

“The most common routes tend to be in the desert areas of southern New Mexico, with smugglers utilizing vehicles or people backpacking the drugs across on foot,” said Joe Romero, supervisory Border Patrol agent for the El Paso Sector, which includes all of New Mexico.

Mexican marijuana has long been a staple for smugglers. And experts predict the disruption created by the rise of legal pot producers in more states will only lead Mexican drug traffickers to resort to more violence.

“You can’t beat the U.S. market for marijuana,” Shirk said, “but you can try to eliminate competitors that might be producing heroin in Mexico.”