In January of 2016, DEA agents in Oklahoma made a single bust of more than 100 pounds of meth, valued at over $1.5 million. The bust was one of many where Mexican drug cartels were caught with massive quantities of the stuff, a result of Oklahoma’s more stringent laws regulating the ability to purchase the ingredients that go into making meth at home. As these allergy and cold medicines became harder to get, “mom and pop” meth labs became replaced by factory produced Mexican product. According to supervisory agent with the FBI Jeff Bowles, roughly 95% of the meth in Oklahoma now comes from Mexico.
From 2015 to 2017, meth related deaths in Oklahoma climbed from 284 to 335, alarming citizens and lawmakers alike. The reason? More product that is more potent. Mexican cartel smugglers hide a liquid form of the substance, half processed, in car batteries, gas tanks, and windshield wiper reserves for it to be later dried and processed into its final form. According to the Texoma High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Regional Intelligence Support Center, these conversion labs create roughly six to eight pounds of methamphetamine per gallon depending on the cook and the quality of the ingredients.
Oklahoma is such a large target in part because it provides easy access to the rest of the United States, connecting to major interstate systems across the nation. In fact, data from the Texas Department of Public Safety shows that Oklahoma is one of the most prominent destinations in the nation for cartels, including for the presence of high ranking cartel members such as those within the Sinaloa cartel. According to Richard Salter, special agent with the DEA in charge of Oklahoma, the meth problem has gotten worse and worse as a result of the cartels.
“They came in with much purer, much cheaper meth and just flooded this region of the country,” he said to Fox 4 News. In 2012, the DEA was buying meth undercover off the streets for roughly $1 grand per ounce. Today, agents can acquire ounces for just $250 to $450. “That’s as cheap as I have ever seen methamphetamine my entire career,” says Salter. Superlabs in Mexico are able to churn out hundreds of pounds daily, leading to a drop in prices. Whereas “shake and bake” labs could turn out lots of small batches, so-called “superlabs” in Mexico produce hundreds of pounds daily. Salter said most of the meth his agents seize first comes across the US-Mexico border in California or Arizona, before making its way through the interstate highway system and temporary stash houses on its way to Oklahoma.
The largest importers of illegal narcotics into the United States are Mexican drug cartels. These organizations, abbreviated as DTO’s (Drug Trafficking Organizations) have increasingly gained control of the importation and retail-level distribution of illegal narcotics in the United States. These organizations formerly coalesced under four major conglomerates, but from 2006 to 2012 under Mexican president Felipe Calderon, faced significant splintering and violence. It is estimated that under Calderon’s leadership and the ensuing Pena administration that there have been roughly 100,000 drug-related deaths in the country since 2006. In the past three years, the Drug Enforcement Agency of the United States has outlined several major DTO’s within South America as the most dominant forces currently in the market. These DTO’s are:
- Tijuana/Arellano Felix Organization
- Cartel Jalisco New Generation
- Gulf Cartel
- Juarez/Carrillo Fuentes Organization
- Los Zetas
The Growing Threat of DTO’s in Mexico
Mexican DTO’s have grown to become some of the largest exporters of heroin in the world, and a large player in the importation of the drug into the United States. The 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment Report found that Mexican cartels expanded their U.S. heroin operations significantly in the last ten years, with 80% of heroin seized by the DEA coming from Mexico in 2014, rising to 93% the following the year. In 2016, poppy cultivation, the plant responsible for opium, reached enough hectares to produce more than 81 metric tons of heroin. With the continuing legalization of marijuana across the world, DTO’s have pivoted into the trade of heroin.
During this time there has also been a continual drug war characterized by public displays of brutal violence, including beheadings, car bombs, and numerous assassinations of politicians and journalists. Mexico’s National Public Security System released a report in 2016 that showed total homicides in the country increased by 22% from 2015 to 2016. According to the magazine Foreign Affairs, roughly one in every four murders per year occurs in the South American northern triangle, which comprises Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela.
Origin of the Major DTO’s
The DTO’s within Mexico have changed over time with a coalescing and splintering that remains in constant flux. For example, the Los Zetas cartel began as an elite corps of special forces members from the Mexican Army who protected the Gulf Cartel. Los Zetas eventually formed their own cartel and became a hyper-violent competitor to the Gulf Cartel. There was was also the capture of Sinaloa cartel kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman in 2016. This caused splinter groups of competing families to emerge from the Sinaloa cartel, though it still remains largely intact. Today, the Sinaloa cartel is still responsible for controlling roughly 40-60% of Mexico’s drug trade, with annual earnings of more than $3 billion. When examining the comparative size and influence of the competing cartels, it’s important to keep in mind that alliances and areas of influence are constantly in motion.
The Sinaloa cartel has been described as Mexico’s oldest and most established DTO. In 2009, the U.S. President Barack Obama even designated the cartel as an official drug kingpin entity in order to impose sanctions and spur global action against DTO’s. The Sinaloa cartel is infamous for having infiltrated levels of public office from local to national, including abroad. Some of the top agents within the organization were thought to be Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada Garcia, and Juan “El Azul” Esparragoza Moreno. The DEA has long considered the Sinaloa cartel the primary trafficker of drugs into the United States.
The Sinaloa’s most infamous leader, “El Chapo”, escaped twice from Mexican federal prisons in 2001 and 2015. The second escape was enough motivation for the Pena Nieto administration to extradite the kingpin to the United States in 2017 to be tried in New York. Following Guzman’s capture, authorities presumed that Ismael Garcia was next in charge, but further investigation has lead to the conclusion that leadership may be more horizontal than originally thought. Sinaloa leaders may control certain territories and act with more independence than originally thought, comprising a decentralized network of bosses and gangs.
Sinaloa’s primary cash flows come from trafficking South American cocaine and exporting locally grown methamphetamine, marijuana, and heroin into the United States. Some analysts believe that Sinaloa may be declining in power and influence given recent splintering and the formation of rival group Cartel Jalisco New Generation. However, many Mexican authorities still designate Sinaloa as Mexico’s most powerful crime syndicate.
Tijuana Arellano Felix Organization (AFO)
The AFO cartel is what’s known as a “regional tollgate” cartel because it has historically controlled drug smuggling routes between Baja and Southern California, excising taxes on the importation of any narcotics. Today, they are based in the border city of Tijuana. AFO began when former Sinaloa member Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo joined forces with numerous other DTO leaders, including several of his own brother and sisters, to become one of the two most powerful cartels in Mexico in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. Under President Felipe Calderon’s war against the cartels, Tijuana became one of the most violent cities in Mexico and the battleground between AFO and the Sinaloa cartel.
Cartel Jalisco-New Generation (CJNG)
The CJNG is a group based in central Mexico that has been called one of the most aggressive and expansive of the Mexican cartels. While other groups have faced fracturing and in-fighting, CJNG as extended its reach and scope. This DTO first appeared on the scene in 2009 and 2011 as an opposition to drug cartels, calling themselves “Zeta Killers” and pledging to fight cartel members in order to stop kidnapping and extortion from occurring. Over time, this group gradually grew into a vigilante force that began trafficking in narcotics.
The organization partnered with the Valencia family, a powerful family in Guadalajara that would become instrumental in the rise of CJNG. Today, the cartel is lead by kingpin Nemesio “El Mencho” Oseguera. Since the capture of El Chapo in 2017, the CJNG violence and dominance has surged in central Mexico, leading to a record number of murder levels around Pacific ports in the country. Mike Vigil, a former DEA chief of international operations, believes that Mexico’s drug trade is roughly 60-40 between the Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation Cartel in favor of Sinaloa.
The Gulf Cartel
The Gulf Cartel is based in the border city of Matamoros and is considered one of the oldest crime syndicate’s in Mexico. The cartel is believed to have connections across the world, including contacts in Europe, West Africa, Asia, and the United States. Its origins can be traced to early bootlegging and cocaine smuggling in the mid 20th century, as well as for contracting the aid of corrupt military personnel to their own personal army. However, the Gulf DTO has faced heavy fracturing and intense fighting among competing factions since their peak. Today, many crime groups within the city of Matamoros call themselves by the Gulf name and are competing for supremacy. Remnants of this cartel include Los Metros and Los Escorpiones.
Juarez / Carrillo Fuentes Organization
The Juarez cartel is also known as the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization and was formerly Mexico’s most notorious and largest criminal organization until 1997 with the death of kingpin Amado Carrillo Fuentes. The rivalry between the Juarez and Sinaloa cartel turned the city of Juarez into one of the most violent in the world from 2008 to 2011. Today, the Juarez Cartel has been split into a number of smaller DTO’s that traffic a significant amount of both marijuana and cocaine as well as deal in the cultivation and wholesale distribution of heroin.
The Los Zetas DTO originally consisted of former elite airborne special forces units from the Mexican Army. The Zetas were formerly enlisted as the military wing of the Gulf Cartel but became one of the most violent cartels in Mexico after splitting with them in the late 2000’s. Los Zetas cartel became synonymous with smuggling, extortion, sex trafficking, and gun running. At one point, Los Zetas was Mexico’s largest drug trafficking organization by a geographical presence, but today they have become more fragmented. Los Zetas are known for their violence as well as their expansion into markets besides the illegal drug trade.
Despite the best efforts of the Mexican government and assistance from the United States, cartel violence and drug trafficking efforts have not wavered significantly in the past several years. The shifting influence of drug trafficking organizations in Mexico indicates that any kind of stabilization within Mexico would take more than just removing top leadership positions and enforcing restrictions at the border. The challenge is figuring out how to dismantle an entrenched series of mafia families while fighting endemic corruption in the political system. The United States is the primary market for smuggling narcotics, so another option for solving the problem is reducing the demand through education, treatment, and intervention for those in the grips of substance dependency.