Mexico’s drug cartels earn billions of dollars in profits as they funnel heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana into drug-hungry countries, including the United States. Crime, death and ruined lives flow right along with those drugs to places as varied as New York City, West Virginia coal country, Albuquerque, Española and western Europe. Despite the efforts of law enforcement, the cartels rival international corporations in size and reach. The drugs they peddle are cheaper and more plentiful than ever before, claiming thousands of victims every year. The Albuquerque Journal today begins a six-part investigative report on a criminal enterprise wreaking havoc across the country.
FIRST IN A SERIES
You don’t have to look south across the border to see the Mexican drug cartels in operation. They are operating right next door.
Heroin rings and methamphetamine dealers with direct connections to international drug traffickers based in Mexico have operated out of stash houses in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights, horse ranches in Valencia County, communities on the Navajo Nation and small towns a stone’s throw from the Mexican border.
And while we in New Mexico focus on drug-fueled property crimes such as auto theft and horrific violence such as the murders of 10-year-old Victoria Martens and Rio Rancho police officer Gregg “Nigel” Benner, our state is much more than a local market. It is a primary corridor for the cartels to ship drugs nationwide.
Federal law enforcement estimates the Sinaloa Cartel alone controls somewhere between 40 and 60 percent of illegal drugs used in the United States. It supplies dealers in cities and states including New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Phoenix, New England, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Mexico.
The Juárez Cartel supplies heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana dealers in North Carolina, Alabama, Oklahoma, Minnesota, New Mexico and parts of Texas.
There is plenty of proof of Mexican cartel operations in New Mexico, as evidenced by some of the operations taken down by law enforcement. For example:
• In May 2012, Luis Rangel and his brother, Miguel, set up shop in Shiprock, on the Navajo reservation. Their business: selling methamphetamine obtained from the Sinaloa Cartel in Phoenix to their Navajo neighbors and in the nearby community of Kirtland, just off the reservation.
• Since the 1990s, members of Ivan Romero’s family have run a tight-knit distribution network that cornered the heroin market in Taos County, serving addicts in the villages and towns of northern New Mexico with heroin imported through Albuquerque from Mexico.
• In Albuquerque, Jesus Munoz Lechuga ran an auto body shop in the far South Valley, receiving cocaine, marijuana and heroin from La Linea faction of the Juárez Cartel and then shipping it to Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Illinois and Alabama.
• Homero Varela ran a racehorse business in Valencia County when federal law enforcement broke up the Sinaloa Cartel associate’s $15 million cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana business.
• At the time of his arrest in July 2015 in Roswell, Joseph Mendiola and his associates were caught by federal and local agents holding 16 pounds of methamphetamine, most of it coming from the Phoenix area and delivered by Francisco Aguilar-Larios. The methamphetamine was destined for sale across the southeastern part of the state.
• From his home in Socorro, Carlos Tafoya Jr. turned out to be one of three suppliers of highly pure methamphetamine to dealers for $800 to $1,200 an ounce who then sold it in smaller amounts on the Mescalero Apache Reservation.
• In the past year, federal agents have broken up two methamphetamine and heroin rings operating in and around Sunland Park, often following the drugs as couriers crossed the bridges in El Paso and made their deliveries in the small New Mexico city.
Estimates on how much money the cartels make each year vary widely. A RAND Corp. study estimated that $6.6 billion in drug profits make it back to Mexico from the United States. Other studies place the figure much higher, in the $40 billion range.
Those figures are meaningless to drug addicts paying $20 for two-tenths of a gram of heroin in Questa.
And the reality is that only a portion of that $20 is going back to Mexico. How big a portion depends on whether the seller was a dealer with a specific cartel or working for a local drug trafficking group that would keep a larger portion of the $20.
Law enforcement has the same problem when estimating the size of the cartels. One study says there are 150,000 members of the Sinaloa Cartel. Another says most of those people are independent contractors and there are only 150 real “members” of the cartel. Whichever is correct, the enterprise is massive.
And the cartels are hard to crack along with being big and profitable.
Cartel operations are so compartmentalized that most people working for the organization couldn’t tell you the names of more than 10 co-workers. And virtually all of them would prefer some time in a U.S. prison to giving up significant information. In fact, a sentence of less than 10 years in a U.S. prison is a badge of honor and good resume building.
Under any estimate, the drug profits taken in by the cartels are immense, rivaling those of any international corporation.
All these operations, small and large, track the drugs they sell back to two of Mexico’s six major transnational criminal organizations – the Juárez and Sinaloa cartels.
Will Glaspy, Drug Enforcement Administration special agent in charge of the El Paso division, is responsible for an area that extends from the Big Bend area in Texas to the New Mexico-Arizona line.
“If you look at that entire area, we’re still seeing marijuana, we’re seeing cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine,” Glaspy said. “If you look at the last four, five years of seizure data, cocaine is the only seizure stat that I have that is going down. Marijuana, meth and heroin are all going up.
“Seizures may be going down in some corridors, but not in our corridor.”
The death toll keeps rising, right along with the flow of illegal drugs and prescription opioids – which in some respects is a different but related problem.
Heroin and opioid addiction have grabbed New Mexico’s headlines over the past few years as the state either led the nation or was near the top in the percentage of people dying of drug overdoses. Last year, the state improved to eighth nationally – partly as a result of efforts to stem the problem and treat addicts and partly because death tolls jumped in other states.
In rural and urban New Mexico, health officials, police and federal law enforcement use the word “epidemic” so often the word loses its impact.
Nationwide, more than 47,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2014 – more than were killed by firearms or in car accidents.
More than half of those died of overdoses of prescription drugs, either legally or illegally purchased.
But there were more than 10,000 heroin overdose deaths last year, and the number of methamphetamine overdose deaths appears to be rising.
The exact number of heroin addicts in the United States has always been a moving target as addicts die, enter treatment, go to jail or prison and new initiates start using. But from 2007 to 2014, the number of new heroin users doubled from 106,000 a year to 212,000 a year, according to federal health officials.
Some of the most tragic are young people who start on prescription drugs and switch to cheaper and readily available heroin.
The national estimate for methamphetamine users in 2014 was 1.3 million – up from almost 1.2 million in 2013.
Meanwhile, the price of methamphetamine – the drug the people charged in the sexual assault and murder of 10-year-old Victoria Martens in Albuquerque allegedly were high on – has dropped from a high of more than $250 a gram in 2007 to below $50 in 2015.
And the purity of the drug on the street exceeds 90 percent, making it cheaper and stronger than cocaine or crack cocaine.
That follows the same pattern established by Mexican heroin, prices of which have fallen to less than $40 a gram to dealers who in turn sell to addicts.
It is accepted law enforcement wisdom that illegal drugs drive crime in communities.
“Most violent and property crime ties back to drugs,” said Deputy APD Chief Eric Garcia. “Both heroin and methamphetamine are extremely addictive,” he said. “We’re finding more polydrug users. Meth users take heroin to come down from their high. As a result, we’re seeing more polydrug dealers on the street.”
Last year, agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and APD ran an undercover operation in Albuquerque expecting to make gun and drug deals with up to 50 career criminals.
They made 104 cases in four months, almost overwhelming the ability of the U.S. Attorney’s Office to handle.
While heroin overdose deaths caught the attention of health officials, law enforcement usually ranks methamphetamine abuse as a greater threat to public safety than heroin addiction.
“The crimes with meth tend to be more heinous, more shocking,” Garcia said.
And New Mexico is no stranger to the horrific crimes linked to both drugs.
• There was methamphetamine running through Andrew Romero’s bloodstream when he shot and killed Rio Rancho Police Officer Gregg “Nigel” Benner in May 2015 while planning a robbery to pay for more drugs during a 25-day drug and robbery binge.
• Davon Lymon was slinging heroin and arranging a heroin buy for a 17-year-old girl when he allegedly shot and killed Albuquerque police officer Daniel Webster during a traffic stop on East Central in October 2015.
• Fabian Gonzales was a regular meth user for years, before he was charged in the grisly murder of his girlfriend’s 10-year-old daughter, Victoria Martens, last summer. Victoria’s mother, Michelle Martens, and Jessica Kelly are also charged with first-degree murder and intentional abuse of a child, among many other offenses.
• A 13-year-old girl on the Mescalero Apache Reservation was brutally assaulted by two other teens, both of whom were high on methamphetamine.
The only thing the crimes have in common is drugs, and the drugs all come from Mexico – cheaper and stronger than ever.
As a bonus to our readers, Journal investigative reporter Mike Gallagher provides additional background and insights about the Juárez and Sinaloa cartels in video interviews.