City of Coke

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Then, early in this decade, the Colombians began to pay in cocaine instead of dollars, and the Mexicans began to smuggle their own coke and set up their own distribution rings in this country, and reap greater profits.

Competing Mexican cartels were further empowered by the imprisonment and death of several Colombian drug lords in the mid-'90s. An International Narcotics Control Strategy report issued by the U.S. State Department in 1997 read: "Mexico now rivals Colombia as the center of the Western Hemisphere drug trade. Mexican drug syndicates are dividing up territory with the remaining Colombian organizations, gradually assuming responsibility for the wholesale distribution of cocaine in the United States. Every day, deals are being made between Mexican drug lords and their surrogates in the United States."

That same year, 5.3 tons of cocaine were seized in a Tucson warehouse rented by a cell of Mexican smugglers connected to Amando Carrillo Fuentes, leader of the Juarez drug cartel. According to a later State Department report, those smugglers were selling cocaine to street gangs in Tucson, Phoenix, New York and Detroit.

Later in 1997, Carrillo Fuentes died during plastic surgery, touching off a vicious narcotraficante war when his former partner, Rafael Munoz Tralavera, joined forces with the Tijuana-based Arrellano Felix cartel to challenge Amando's brother Vicente for control of borderland cocaine smuggling. That war continues today. Meanwhile, a recent DEA report detailed new evidence that both cartels are cutting out the Colombians entirely and buying raw cocaine directly from growers in Peru and Bolivia.

"The Tijuana and Juarez cartels are killing one another like in the Godfather movies, but still both are growing more powerful," says Jesus Blancornelas, senior editor of the Tijuana daily Zeta, who has written numerous exposés on Mexico's warring cartels.

Blancornelas explains that just as an increased Border Patrol presence in California and Texas has funneled more undocumented immigrants into Arizona, increased drug interdiction elsewhere has caused smugglers to shift operations to Arizona, where the border is more porous (the freight traffic through the Nogales point-of-entry alone is so heavy that customs officials randomly searching for drug loads are like eels striking into schools of fish).

"For a long time, Arizona has been the territory of the Tijuana cartel," he says. "Now, everyone is trying to move in."

Blancornelas was nearly murdered three years ago for speaking and writing so openly of the drug business in his country. He was shot four times, and his bodyguard was killed in a botched assassination attempt orchestrated by operatives of the Arrellano-Felix cartel.

That a drug lord would order the death of a crusading journalist in Mexico was far less surprising than the identity of the would-be assassins. The five young men hired to kill Blancornelas were members of the Ten Logan 30s, a San Diego street gang. Ensuing investigations revealed the Ten Logan 30s and other southern California gangs are routinely hired to provide security for drug shipments on both sides of the border. Members of the Ten Logan 30s have since been charged with the 1993 murder of a Mexican Catholic Cardinal, his driver and five others outside the Guadalajara airport.

"Basically, the cartels are recruiting U.S. street gangs to create a binational army of killers," says Blancornelas.

So far, there is no concrete evidence of Arizona gangs being directly recruited by operatives of Mexican cartels.

Blancornelas expects that to change.

"It would only make sense as a next step," he says. "This is what they do. What moves drugs on the streets of America this morning is a direct extension of the cartels in Mexico. They like to put their own people in place to oversee things, yes, but they like to use the natural criminal resources of the U.S. as well.

"All we see leads us to a simple conclusion: As long as Americans demand drugs, there will be a supply from Mexico, and blood will spill on both sides of the border."

See previous stories in the Hard Core series here.

Contact David Holthouse at his online address: [email protected]
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David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse