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The Cartels Next Door: Can we stem the drug tide?

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

Americans are consuming drugs of all kinds at an alarming rate. Our appetite for heroin, methamphetamine, prescription painkillers and marijuana seems insatiable. The Journal published the first five parts of an investigative report from Feb. 12 through Feb. 16, revealing how the Mexican drug cartels account for 90 percent of the illegal drugs consumed in the U.S. that fuel crime and addiction. Law enforcement constantly busts drug runners and seizes contraband. But the river flows on, and efforts to make real inroads are complicated and multinational and will take years. Today, the Journal concludes the series with a look at those efforts. To read the entire series, go to

A carton of produce enters the United States at an inspection station (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

A carton of produce enters the United States at an inspection station (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

Over the Christmas holidays, seven people were charged with transporting more than 52 pounds of methamphetamine in four separate incidents in and around Albuquerque.

There was a time when any one of those arrests would have been big local news here, even though all the drugs were destined for Oklahoma City, Columbia, S.C., and other cities.

But arrests and seizures are so commonplace, and drugs so ubiquitous, they scarcely moved the media interest meter.

It’s not as though the arrests were inconsequential.

Federal agents say that by intercepting drugs carried by “mules” at the Amtrak and Greyhound stations or during traffic stops on I-40, they are having an impact on the country’s drug problem. The 52 pounds of methamphetamine seized on Dec. 28 and 30 represent more than 23,000 grams of meth that would have been sold on the streets of New York for more than $2.3 million.

But did these busts make much of an impact on the supply of methamphetamine wreaking havoc coast to coast? Not even a dent.

Heroin and methamphetamine smuggled from Mexico into the United States by Mexican cartels are more abundant, cheaper and more powerful than ever. And the cartels provide plenty of marijuana as well, although the price is a little higher than it was a few years ago.

In addition, the Mexican cartels have added fentanyl – a cheap synthetic opioid 100 times more powerful than morphine – to the mix of illicit drugs smuggled into the United States.

The current Drug Enforcement Administration wanted poster for Rafael Caro Quintero.

The current Drug Enforcement Administration wanted poster for Rafael Caro Quintero.

While Mexico has been a frequent target of President Donald Trump, both governments have a huge challenge in trying to rein in the cartels.

Most drugs enter the United States through the ports of entry, and Trump’s suggestion that a “wall” along the border will curb drug trafficking has been met with some skepticism from within his own political party.

“There are a lot of ways to defeat the wall,” Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., said in an interview last week. “They can fly over it with light aircraft using GPS on bundles of drugs. The cartels have great tunnelers. They’ve had tunnels with traffic in both directions.”

And the cartels have the money to support those efforts.

“Transnational organized crime groups get to a size where they overwhelm the central governments,” said Bruce Ohr, associate deputy attorney general at the U.S. Department of Justice.

“They have more money than their central governments,” Ohr said in an interview. “Those groups are a threat to the United States. It is a global problem, and one we worry about.”

Positive steps

Ohr serves as the director of the Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement task forces, as well as director of the Attorney General’s Organized Crime Council. Ohr also deals with his counterparts across the globe.

He can sound like a prophet of doom and them pivot to point out progress around the world on combating international drug trafficking.

In a December interview, he pointed out a number of positive developments.

Among them:

• Despite changes in leadership, Mexico is continuing to overhaul its criminal justice system to make it more effective in combating drug cartels.

• Mexico has raided an average of 240 methamphetamine laboratories a year and forced the cartels to move some methamphetamine operations into Central America because of police pressure.

• Mexico has extradited cartel leaders, including Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, the head of the Sinaloa Cartel, to the United States. Guzmán, who was brought to the United States in January, will face trial in New York on charges related to running one of the world’s biggest drug organizations.

• China has worked with U.S. law enforcement to restrict the production and trade of precursor chemicals used to make methamphetamine and in the production of fentanyl and fentanyl-type drugs.

• More countries, including China, are working with U.S. law enforcement on organized crime money laundering investigations.

But Ohr said international cooperation isn’t always smooth.

There are a lot of substances that are still legal in China, but that is changing, he said. And “in Mexico, there has been a lot of progress, but corruption is still a concern,” he said.

Agent tortured

DEA agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena was kidnapped and killed in Mexico in 1985.

DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena was kidnapped and killed in Mexico in 1985.

Rafael Caro Quintero is a problem in U.S. law enforcement relations with Mexico.

Quintero is supposed to be in a Mexican federal prison.

He’s not.

Quintero, Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo and Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo founded the Guadalajara Cartel in the early 1980s. Gallardo was chairman of the board. Fonseca represented the old guard and Quintero represented the up-and-comers.

He also is believed to be the man behind the murder of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena in February 1985.

Camarena, who was assigned to the DEA office in Guadalajara, led the Mexican military to the Rancho El Bufalo in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, where between 5,000 and 10,000 tons of marijuana was destroyed in late 1984.

It was Quintero’s marijuana operation.

A few months later, Camarena was abducted, taken to a cartel ranch and tortured for more than 30 hours.

His abductors included members of the Mexican Federal Security Directorate, a police agency that was eventually broken up because it was so corrupt.

Camarena’s torture and interrogation were recorded on audiotape that was recovered by U.S. law enforcement. His skull, nose, jaw and cheekbones were broken with a tire iron. His torturers broke his ribs. They used a cattle prod on him.

Camarena’s body was discovered in March 1985, a month after his abduction.

When American DEA agents cornered Quintero, Mexican police turned and held the agents at gunpoint while Quintero boarded an airplane and escaped. He was later arrested in Costa Rica by DEA agents, returned to Mexico and was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Mexico would not extradite him to stand trial in the U.S. for Camarena’s murder, partly because Quintero faced the death penalty.

He was released, without any announcement, in August 2013 after serving 28 years.

The Mexican government never notified the United States.

The extradition request for Quintero has been ignored.

Quintero has written the Mexican press that he is innocent of the charges of killing Camarena and is not involved in drug trafficking.

The U.S. Treasury Department has publicly linked him to laundering drug money in 2014 and again in 2016.

Quintero is believed to be living in southern Chihuahua, where the Juárez Cartel has expanded poppy production in recent years.

Partial victories

There are no quick answers, but there may be hope.

Associate Deputy Attorney General Ohr points to what can be considered past successes ‒ – the destruction of the large Colombian cocaine cartels and the defeat of the Italian Mafia families in New York City.

Neither was a complete victory. There are Colombian cartels dealing cocaine today. And the Italian Mafia still exists in New York.

But they are shadows of the powerful organized crime syndicates they were decades ago.

The Medellin Cartel was a legitimate threat to the Colombian government, killing police, prosecutors, judges and legislators.

The five Mafia families in New York had their hands in almost every aspect of life in the New York area, from drugs to garbage hauling to construction to food distribution.

“It took sustained law enforcement efforts,” Ohr said.

In taking on the Mafia families, the Department of Justice developed the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force system.

It took money from all federal law enforcement agencies – to get them to cooperate – and pooled the money to pay for long-term investigations.

The DOJ used federal racketeering statutes and money laundering laws.

“We were able to knock La Cosa Nostra down to size,” he said.

In Florida, U.S. law enforcement used many of the same tools to help Colombian law enforcement attack the Medellin Cartel and later the Cali Cartel.

“These were huge, intractable problems,” Ohr said. “It was messy at times. It wasn’t easy, but the existing drug networks are nowhere near as powerful as they once were.”

“I think Colombia might be the best example of what we may be able to do in combating the criminal networks in Mexico,” he said.

Whether Mexico would willingly accept the full public participation by American law enforcement is another question.

Demand drives it

In New Mexico, Damon Martinez has been running the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the past four years.

U. S. Attorney Damon Martinez

U. S. Attorney Damon Martinez

From his perspective, combating drug trafficking organizations is less difficult than fighting the drug abuse problem.

“If the traffickers are on this side of the border, we should be able to tattoo that organization,” Martinez said. “We have the capability to take on any drug trafficking organization.

“We have the tools. We can get their drugs. We can get their assets. We can get their money, which is a crucial component to hurting their ability to operate.”

But he and others in federal law enforcement have made it clear they don’t believe we can arrest our way out of the drug abuse problem.

“We have to attack the traffickers,” he said in an interview. “But we have to suppress the demand side through education and treatment to deprive traffickers of their market.”

In response to New Mexico’s constantly high ranking in drug overdose deaths, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and UNM Health Sciences Center formed the New Mexico Heroin and Opioid Prevention and Education (HOPE) Initiative.

They were joined by the DEA, the Bernalillo County Opioid Accountability Initiative, Healing Addiction in Our Community, Albuquerque Public Schools and other community groups. The principal goal was the reduction in the number of opioid-related deaths in the state.

“We have a lot of people in prison for drug crimes, and the recidivism statistics are bad for people being released,” Martinez said.

Isleta Pueblo, with the HOPE Initiative’s help, set up a re-entry plan to help former inmates with transportation, education and jobs.

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas recently launched initiatives to combat drug abuse at the state level.

The State Pharmacy and Medical boards have toughened regulations on prescribing painkilling drugs.

And other state programs aimed at reducing the harm caused by the drugs, like making heroin overdose antidotes available to police, have helped reduce the state’s rate of overdose deaths.

But as heroin overdose deaths have declined slightly, methamphetamine overdose deaths have increased. Some consider a meth habit harder to break than addiction to heroin.

But they both fuel crime as addicts rob, steal and sell drugs to buy more drugs.

Albuquerque Deputy Police Chief Eric Garcia said drugs are directly related to the overwhelming number of crimes here and that crimes by people high on meth tend to be more violent and horrific than others.

Still, law enforcement has responded.

“We have limited resources; we have to direct our resources where they will make a difference,” Martinez said. “We targeted violent criminals in the community through the worst of the worst. We targeted pharmacy robberies.

“Our law enforcement efforts have to evolve,” he said. “I think we can counter each and every move the cartels and traffickers make.

“We can’t give up on it.”

By the numbers

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