PHOENIX—Every time politicians and media discuss border security, one particular group of people is paying very close attention: Mexican cartels.
“Because across the border in Mexico we have a complete, organized, criminal business of trafficking humans and drugs into the United States,” said Sheriff Andy Louderback of Jackson County, Texas. The cartels “absolutely” control the southwest border, he said.
“Every day, every minute, some penetration of the Texas border, California border, New Mexico border, Arizona border—every minute, someone is preparing to send a load in, or traffick humans in, or some type of criminal activity is going on. Every minute of every day. That’s their job, that’s what they’re committed to do, that’s how they get paid. And that’s what we’re up against.”
The cartels control the trafficking routes throughout Mexico and the entry points, or plazas, into the United States.
“[They also] maintain drug distribution cells in designated cities across the United States that either report directly to TCO leaders in Mexico or indirectly through intermediaries,” according to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) 2017 national drug threat assessment.
The cartels are also known as TCOs, or transnational criminal organizations.
Different cartels control different areas along the southwest border. For example, the Sinaloa Cartel is dominant in California and Arizona, whereas the Gulf Cartel reigns supreme in southeast Texas.
The DEA says six cartels have the biggest impact on drug trafficking into the United States: Sinaloa Cartel, Jalisco New Generation Cartel (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación, or CJNG), Juarez Cartel, Gulf Cartel, Los Zetas Cartel, and Beltran-Leyva Organization.
The Sinaloa Cartel is one of the oldest and most well-established. It runs drug distribution hubs in large cities including Phoenix, Los Angeles, Denver, and Chicago, according to the DEA.
“Everything that we work—all the Sinaloa cartel guys, all the cartel cases that we do—they’re not just drug traffickers, they’re doing multiple different crimes,” said Doug Coleman, special agent in charge of the Arizona DEA. “But drug trafficking is still the primary business of all those criminal organizations in Mexico.”
Marlene Castro, a supervisory Border Patrol agent in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley Sector, said smuggling organizations bring migrants up from Central America to the U.S.–Mexico border, which is defined by the Rio Grande in Texas, “but you will not cross from that bank into the United States without paying [the cartels] some money.”
“You have to at some point pay something. Sadly, a lot of women pay with their bodies,” she said last year. “There are cases where the women—with the expectation of getting raped—prepare themselves by getting on birth control … for the purpose of the journey.”
Cartels also pressure juveniles to transport drugs across the border; thousands of children cross the border every day to attend school.
Leadership and Operations
The leadership in Mexico gets more sophisticated the higher up the ranks you go, Coleman said.
They carry 15 to 20 different cellphones, they never let anyone buy from them that they don’t know and haven’t vetted, and they’re moving constantly, “because we are always tracking them in Mexico.”
“When you get down to the lower levels and you get to the point where you are talking to a guy maybe here in Phoenix that is a load driver, that is not particularly sophisticated. He gets paid $1,000 to take that load of coke back to Chicago.”
Cartel activity in the United States is mainly overseen by Mexican nationals (often in the United States illegally), or U.S. citizens of Mexican origin.
The cartels operate in cells that have specific functions such as distribution, transportation, consolidation of drug proceeds, and money laundering, according to the DEA.
“In most cases, individuals hired to transport drug shipments within the United States are independent, third-party contractors who may be working for multiple Mexican TCOs,” the DEA report says.
“U.S.-based Mexican TCO members generally coordinate the transportation and distribution of bulk wholesale quantities of illicit drugs to U.S. markets, while retail-level distribution is mainly handled by smaller local groups and street gangs not directly affiliated with Mexican TCOs.”
Coleman, who is based in Phoenix, said his cases intercept and attack the cartel leadership in Mexico as well as the cells that operate in the United States.
“At any given time, we’ll have 125 to 150 open active cases going all the time against high-level drug traffickers. So it gives you an idea how many of them there are,” he said.
“When we are working an investigation now that may be reaching across multiple states and multiple countries, we rarely take it all off at the same time. We take off cells at different times so that we can see what the next cell is going to do.”
The days of car chases and gun battles have given way to surveillance, internet investigations, and communications interceptions, Coleman said.
“The problem that we always have, of course, is that we have to play by a set of rules. … We have search warrants, we have probable cause—the bad guys have no rules,” he said. “And so we’re always chasing … because when you’re playing against a team that plays with no rules at all, your hands are tied behind your back a little bit.
“But that’s why we’re so good. Our guys are very innovative, and they figure out to get around those obstacles that are in their way. The good thing about DEA agents is they never give up. We’ll chase a guy forever. I mean, we’ll chase him to the ends of the earth.”
Lookouts and Scouts
On May 23, to the west of Nogales, Arizona, two men sat under a tree in Mexico, right next to the fence—watching. The only thing in sight was a Border Patrol agent and his truck.
He said they were most likely lookouts working for the cartel, either human- or drug-smuggling.
Coleman said lookouts are usually watching Border Patrol.
“If they are human smuggling they watch to see when the Border Patrol guys are shift changing or they move out of the area. Then they make a call and then you will see 10 guys run across the border,” he said.
The cartels also put scouts up on mountains in the United States when they are running loads across through the desert, said Coleman.
“They will be calling out where to go and where not to go ‘cos they are looking that way at Border Patrol and looking that way at the dope car,” he said.
“We bust those encampments all the time. There will be a scout up there, he’ll have a car battery that is powering his radio, and then he’ll have his snacks and his water and he just hangs out up there for two weeks at a time, and then they move them out and bring new guys in.”
Compliance is generally elicited through violence.
“Drug dealing is a dirty, nasty business that involves really bad people moving a really dangerous product for a lot of money,” Coleman said. “So any time there is an arrest or a take off of that load of dope that’s worth a million dollars, somebody has to pay the price for that.”
Coleman said cartel-related violence in the the United States is usually at the lower levels, fighting over turf.
In Mexico, it’s all-out war.
“A turf war in the United States usually involves two or three guys at the lowest level, that are shooting at a couple of guys that decided to sell rocks in their neighborhood,” he said. “In Mexico, you’re talking about they are trying to take over large portions of land so they can control the trafficking routes into the United States. and so you have small armies of guys that are associated with the cartel.”
It’s similar with a leadership change, such as when El Chapo or Osiel Cárdenas were taken down.
“The guys that are underneath them all start vying for control. … They kill the guys to get power,” Coleman said.
The heightened border security under the Trump administration is helping the DEA’s efforts, said Coleman.
“Anything that we can do that makes the cartel change the way that they operate a little bit, gives us a chance to exploit that change,” he said. “And so additional security on the border makes them change the way that they are going to traffick the drugs in.”
But combatting smuggling and trafficking across the border is an uphill battle, said Louderback.
“It’s a daily, 24-hour business. And this is what they do,” he said.
“And I’m not sure that a large portion of the United States, the population here, understand exactly the task that we have to try and stop these folks. They’re well-funded, [they] have more money than the U.S. government is willing to put into this—because we don’t have enough money, there’s never going to be enough money, to do that.”