Are Drug Cartels Infiltrating Middle America?

By McCarton Ackerman 04/01/13

Mexico's violent traffickers are now taking root far north of the border, a new report claims.

No longer a distant problem. Photo via

Border states in the US have had to deal with the presence of Mexico's notoriously violent drug trafficking cartels for decades. But the groups are now extending their reach north, planting themselves deep into middle America, according to an investigative report from the Associated Press. The report found that the cartels are sending some of their most trusted agents to live and work in the cities and suburbs of states like Ohio, Kentucky and North Carolina. Notorious drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman was even recently named as Chicago's Public Enemy No. 1 despite never having set foot in the city. "It's probably the most serious threat the United States has faced from organized crime," says Jack Riley, head of the DEA's Chicago office. "People think, 'The border's 1,700 miles away. This isn't our problem.' Well, it is. These days, we operate as if Chicago is on the border." Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane told a legislative committee last February that Mexican drug cartels are "taking over our neighborhoods," while dozens of federal agents and local police interviewed by the AP said they have identified cartel members or operatives using wiretapped conversations, informants or confessions.

Art Bilek, a former organized crime investigator who is now executive vice president of the crime commission, says that cartels were previously more inclined to make deals in Mexico with American traffickers, who would then handle transportation to and distribution within major cities. But due to more sophisticated technology and a desire for even more profits, the cartels have begun cutting out the middleman and put their own forces on US grounds. According to DEA statistics, 1,200 communities have reported cartel presence in their neighborhood, up from 230 in 2008. And even in neighborhoods where cartels aren't directly present, they are often the source of drugs that result in gang violence or overdose deaths. To help combat this, Chicago opened a first-of-its-kind facility at a secret location and hired 70 federal agents to work alongside police and prosecutors. However, many still remain skeptical about growing cartel presence in the US, and the DEA statistics may simply be a result of better reporting in the last three years. "We know astonishingly little about the structure and dynamics of cartels north of the border," says David Shirk of the University of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute, "We need to be very cautious about the assumptions we make." 

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.