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News >  Nation/World

Mexico now top source of U.S. drugs

Pablo Bachelet Knight Ridder

WASHINGTON – Mexican drug traffickers have pushed aside their Colombian counterparts and now dominate the U.S. market in the biggest reorganization of the trade since the rise of the Colombian cartels in the 1980s, U.S. officials say.

Mexican groups now are behind much of the cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine on U.S. streets, the officials say, with Mexican law enforcement agencies viewed as either too weak or too corrupt to stop them.

Mexico’s role as a drug-trafficking hub has been growing for some time, but its grip on the $400-billion-a-year trade has strengthened in recent years. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in June, 92 percent of the cocaine sold in the United States in 2004 came through the U.S.-Mexico border, compared with 77 percent in 2003.

And the Key West, Fla.-based Joint Interagency Task Force South, which coordinates federal drug interdiction efforts and intelligence, has reported almost 90 percent of the cocaine heading to the U.S. market goes by boat to Mexico or other countries in Central America, and then by land to the U.S. border.

The increase has sparked several recent reports by DEA and other U.S. agencies, as well as hearings in both the House and Senate. Congress members, worried that the smuggling networks could be used to sneak in terrorists, are pressing the Bush administration to spend more money on programs to intercept drug shipments before they reach the border.

Officials describe the Mexican cartels as business-savvy, tight-knit family affairs that operate weblike networks of international partnerships. The Colombian cartels controlled the drug trade from its production to its wholesale distribution. The Mexicans tend to focus more on distribution, the business’s most lucrative leg.

Anthony Placido, the DEA’s top intelligence official, told a congressional panel in June that the Mexican gangs have links to groups from Colombia, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, and “street gangs, prison gangs and outlaw motorcycle gangs, who conduct most of the retail and street-level distribution throughout the country.”

The Mexicans don’t control the coca or opium poppy crops in South America but are “taking ownership of (drugs) and beginning to deliver the drug themselves to Mexican distributors in the United States,” said David Murray, a senior advisor with the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy.

U.S. law enforcement agencies have uncovered over 30 tunnels below the border built by drug traffickers. One congressional aide described them as “industry-standard tunnels that you would find in a mining operation.”

Mexican gangs are becoming a major force in the burgeoning methamphetamine trade by setting up production laboratories on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. In 2004, a record 3,600 pounds of methamphetamine was seized along the south-west border, a 74 percent rise since 2001, according to DEA figures.

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