When Sen. John McCain spoke during an Armed Services Committee hearing last year on security issues in the Western Hemisphere, he relayed a stark warning about the spread of Mexican drug cartels in the United States.
“The cartels,” the Arizona Republican said, “now maintain a presence in over 1,000 cities.”
McCain based his remarks on a report by a now-defunct division of the Justice Department, the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC), which had concluded in 2011 that Mexican criminal organizations, including seven major drug cartels, were operating in more than 1,000 U.S. cities.
But the number, widely reported by news organizations across the country, is misleading at best, according to U.S. law enforcement officials and drug policy analysts interviewed by The Washington Post. They said the number is inflated because it relied heavily on self-reporting by law enforcement agencies, not on documented criminal cases involving Mexican drug-trafficking organizations and cartels.
The Post interviewed local police officials in more than a dozen cities who said they were surprised to learn that the federal government had documented cartel-related activity in their communities.
“That’s news to me,” said Randy Sobel, chief of police in Middleton, N.H.
“I have no knowledge of that,” said David Lancaster, chief of police in Corinth, Miss.
NDIC’s headquarters in Pennsylvania was closed last year and its personnel folded into the Drug Enforcement Administration. DEA officials declined to release a list of the cities, calling it “law enforcement sensitive.”
Privately, DEA and Justice Department officials said they have no confidence in the accuracy of the list.
“It’s not a DEA number,” said a DEA official who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the report. “We don’t want to be attached to this number at all.”
The Post was able to identify more than a third of the cities using computer mapping techniques and government documents. The analysis located government claims of Mexican drug activity in numerous cities in unexpected places: 20 in Montana, 25 in Oregon, 25 in Idaho, 30 in Arkansas.
There is no disputing that Mexican cartels are operating in the United States. Drug policy analysts estimate that about 90 percent of the cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine on U.S. streets came here courtesy of the cartels and their distribution networks in Mexico and along the Southwestern border. DEA officials say they have documented numerous cases of cartel activity in Houston, Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta.
But analysts who study drug trafficking scoffed at the contention that the violent cartels and other Mexican-based drug organizations are operating in more than 1,000 U.S. cities.
“They say there are Mexicans operating here and they must be part of a Mexican drug organization,” said Peter Reuter, who co-directed drug research for the nonprofit Rand think tank and now works as a professor at the University of Maryland. “These numbers are mythical, and they keep getting reinforced by the echo chamber.”
The former chief of NDIC defended the work of his former agency.
“It doesn’t surprise me that the DEA doesn’t support those numbers,” said Michael F. Walther, who ran the agency between 2005 and 2012. “They like to paint a more positive portrait of the world. I stand by the work that our analysts did at NDIC.”
Drug policy analysts said the wide dissemination of the number is part of a pattern in the decades-long “war on drugs” of promoting questionable statistics in an attempt to quantify the drug problem in the United States and justify budgets.
“Washington loves mythical numbers,” said John Carnevale, a former drug policy and budget official who served three presidents and four “drug czars” at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. “Once the number is out there and it comes from a source perceived to be credible, it becomes hard to disprove, almost impossible, even when it’s wrong.”
NDIC closed in June 2012 after 19 years of operation and more than $690 million in taxpayers’ money spent. But the NDIC number lives on, cited in congressional reports on security along the Southwest border and in testimony by high-ranking members of the military and key lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
“The cartels now have a presence in more than 1,000 U. S. cities,” said a 2012 report by the House Homeland Security oversight subcommittee on violence and terrorism on the Southwest border.
“A terrorist insurgency is being waged along our Southern border,” then-House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Connie Mack (R-Fla.) said during a 2011 hearing on combating international criminal organizations. He cited “the operations across Mexico and Central America, as well as in over 1,000 U.S. cities.”