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Mexican Cartels Take Root in Small-Town USA

The organizations increasingly operate out of rural America, to be closer to their consumers.


Wilmington, NC: Your local drug hub.
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By May Wilkerson


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Mexican drug cartels' presence in small-town America is growing. Cartels increasingly target small towns like Wilmington, NC, where officials found 2,400 marijuana plants in 2009, bankrolled by a Mexican gang called "La Familia Michoacana." Towns like Wilmington have ideal features to become cartel sub-hubs—like a nearby interstate for ferrying drugs and money, and areas with higher Latino populations, which afford greater cover. "I'm not saying Mexicans come here to do crime, but Mexicans who move drugs choose to do it through areas where there are already Mexicans," says author Charles Bowden, who has written numerous books on the drug war. There's so much suspect activity in the Wilmington area that the DEA has set up a confidential 1-800-number for tip-offs.

It's not surprising that drug organizations flourish in the US—a nation that holds 4% of the world's population, yet consumes about two-thirds of its illegal drugs. And although it's expensive and logistically difficult to harvest cocaine here, the booming popularity of (cheaper and easier-to-produce) crystal meth since the '90s has increased cartel activity north of the border. "The thing that triggered the mass infiltration into the United States' smaller communities is that methamphetamine has been introduced as a poor man's cocaine," says retired DEA agent Phil Jordan. According to the Justice Department's National Drug Intelligence Center, Mexican cartels now control most of the heroin, marijuana and meth coming in to the US—and increasingly produce these drugs themselves. The numbers of US cities that host cartel activity is rising: in 2009 and 2010, the center reported, cartels operated in 1,286 US cities—that's more than five times the 2008 figure. This is especially alarming considering that the Central American outfits are notorious for gruesome murders, such as public beheadings, or hanging competitors off bridges. But most gangs realize they can't get away with this kind of violence in the US—generally. "For the most part, the killing fields of Mexico will not transfer to the US," says Jordan. "Except for those that have betrayed the cartels," in which case, "they will seek you and kill you."

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