U.S. authorities said Monday they have have broken up wide-ranging Mexican cocaine transportation and distribution networks operating in New York and along the East Coast drug markets formerly supplied and controlled by Colombian cocaine cartels.
Two carefully coordinated raids over the last four days - the result of months of investigation - produced 89 arrests in 10 cities and netted nine tons of cocaine and $18.3 million in cash, law enforcement officials said.
They said the magnitude of the seizures and number of arrests - which took place in Chicago; Rockford, Ill.; Grand Rapids, Mich.; and San Diego as well as New York - indicate how rapidly Mexican syndicates are overtaking the dominance of the Colombian networks and represents one of the most significant shifts in international drug-trafficking in recent years.
For years previously, Mexican traffickers had transported Colombian-processed cocaine into the United States and operated a few distribution networks on the West Coast. But law enforcement officials say the recent raids are evidence that Mexican traffickers now are not only smuggling cocaine across the southern U.S. border, but are handling the transportation and delivery of drugs in the eastern United States - traditionally the purview of Colombian groups - all the way down to the wholesale level.
The same northbound trucks that transported the cocaine - often hidden in crates of refrigerated fruits and vegetables - were used to transport millions of dollars in cash proceeds back to Mexico, officials said. The trucks, usually driven by Americans to attract less attention, typically off-loaded their contraband at rented New Jersey warehouses, where it was stored until distribution could be arranged.
“It’s the first time we’ve seen major shipments by Mexicans to the East Coast, where they rent their own warehouses and everything,” Thomas A. Constantine, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said in a telephone interview. “All of that used to be done by the Colombians.”
The investigations, which began last fall and were dubbed operations Reciprocity and Limelight, “dramatically demonstrate that Mexican drug traffickers are displacing at least some of the Colombian cocaine organizations which have traditionally dominated the New York City cocaine traffic,” Constantine said.
“These organized syndicates … have dumped tons of cocaine on New York City, and they are moving closer to eclipsing the Colombians and controlling the U.S. drug market. We are extremely concerned over the escalating use of violence by these groups on both sides of the border as the criminals attempt to expand their market share.”
The rapid expansion of the Mexican drug syndicates has prompted deep concern among U.S. officials mindful of the relatively porous 2,000-mile border the nations share and of the degree to which drug lords have coopted Mexican police agencies. As Mexican traffickers grow more powerful and wealthy, U.S. officials fear, they will become more capable of spreading corruption and violence across the border.
“Fourteen months ago, these groups were powerful but (were) not set up here,” said one U.S. official. “Now we are looking at organizations with a strong infrastructure based just on the other side of our border. They are getting wealthier and more powerful all the time.”
Based on information gleaned from Operation Limelight, the DEA estimates that a transportation network run by Mexican fugitive Alberto Beltran, a lieutenant of dead drug lord Amado Carrillo Fuentes, trucked at least a ton and a half of cocaine to the New York area every month, while Operation Reciprocity indicated that a separate organization was delivering at least a ton a month to the same area.
Law enforcement officials said Mexican drug groups, in fact, were operating in major cocaine markets up and down the East Coast, as well as New York.
U.S. officials familiar with the distribution operations said that Colombian and Mexican organizations had apparently come to some kind of deal to allow the Mexicans to expand into former Colombian territory.
xxxx WHO ARE THEY? Law enforcement officials said the Mexican groups targeted in the two operations appeared to be linked to Mexico’s Juarez cartel, until recently controlled by Amado Carrillo Fuentes. Carrillo, once the most powerful drug trafficker in Mexico, died July 4 after undergoing hours of cosmetic surgery and liposuction in an apparent attempt to alter his appearance.