Besides Los Angeles and Chicago, Atlanta has emerged as a major distribution hub. The access to interstate highways and a growing Hispanic population allow cartel members to travel freely and blend into the general population, leading the organizations to bulk up operations.
In Atlanta, officials said, four rival cartels are battling for control: the Beltran Leyva; remnants of La Familia Michoacana; the Knights Templar, a splinter group of La Familia; and the Sinaloa.
Seizures of heroin in the city have increased 70 percent in the past two years and traffickers are selling a better quality of “Mexican Brown” heroin to many who are already addicted to pharmaceutical painkillers, said Harry S. Sommers, the DEA’s special agent in charge of the Atlanta field division. The drug is now mostly being smoked or snorted, not injected by needle.
“There’s not a significant difference between Oxycontin and heroin,” Sommers said. “Sometimes they give the heroin away at first and get people hooked on it.”
The increasing amount of heroin agents are seeing in Chicago and Atlanta is reflected nationwide, a ccording to the DEA. In the first nine months of this fiscal year, 1,394 kilograms of heroin were seized, compared with 487 kilos of heroin seized at the southwest border in fiscal year 2008 and 773 kilos in 2009. Heroin arrests nationwide are up, too. In the first nine months of this fiscal year, 3,350 people were arrested on heroin charges, compared with 2,510 in 2008.
Officials say the cartels’ ability to infiltrate U.S. cities reflects calculated business decisions.
In recent years, U.S. officials have cracked down on American-made methamphetamine by passing federal and state laws to restrict the sale of the precursor chemicals used to manufacture it, particularly pseudoephedrine, a common over-the-counter decongestant for allergies and colds.
The cartels have filled the void. Mexican-produced meth now accounts for 80 to 90 percent of the product sold in the United States, and it is swiftly moving into major urban hubs including Phoenix, Denver, St. Louis, Chicago and Atlanta, according to the DEA.
Federal agents have seized 7,574 kilos of methamphetamine at the southwest border in the first nine months of this fiscal year, compared with 2,237 kilos in 2008 and 3,064 in 2009.
“We’ve seen a sudden increase of meth in Chicago in just the last several months,” said Riley, the special agent in charge there. “Until now, meth has been mostly a rural phenomenon. We haven’t seen this on the streets in large cities. It’s an indication of the cartels seizing the market.”
The Sinaloa cartel has both slashed the price and produced a purer form of meth that gives users a faster and longer-lasting high, Riley said. To get the methamphetamine on the streets, the cartel is using its existing distribution networks.
Experts say Mexican cartels have also been calculating in their use of violence. In Mexico, more than 60,000 people have been killed in the past six years in mass murders, beheadings and mutilations as the cartels have fought for control.
Bowden, who spent years in Mexico writing about the violence, said it’s no accident U.S. cities haven’t seen the same levels of brutality. “In the U.S., murder is bad for their drug business,” he said. “In Mexico, it is business.”
A tenacious foe
Each time the federal government succeeds in prosecuting cartel members, the groups deploy new lieutenants to keep the drugs flowing north and the cash and U.S. guns going south into Mexico.
The DEA and other federal agencies say that they are making strides in combatting organized crime with new “strike forces,” composed of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. In Chicago, for example, the DEA-led strike force has worked with the FBI; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Chicago police; Immigration Customs and Enforcement; and other state and federal agencies to bring down traffickers.
Officials also said large drug busts across the country have netted scores of dealers, thousands of kilos of drugs and tens of millions of dollars in cash.
The Justice Department, in the meantime, is extraditing an increasing number of high-ranking cartel members to the United States for prosecution, including Jesús Vicente Zambada-Niebla, the son of Guzman’s top partner in the Sinaloa cartel and a trafficker who officials say is the biggest Mexican drug kingpin to be prosecuted in a U.S. courtroom.
Despite major drug seizures, Armstrong, the former national intelligence officer, said officials have not scored lasting gains.
“It’s because the U.S. government hasn’t broken the system,” Armstrong said. “They’ve arrested dealers. But the distribution system and its network are alive and well.”
William Booth in Mexico City and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.