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Expert: Mexican Drug Cartels Infesting US, Even Our National Parks

Apr 22, 2011 – 10:23 AM
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Dana Kennedy

Dana Kennedy Contributor

Lost in the rhetoric about illegal immigration are new reports that Mexican drug cartels have moved into the United States, gaining a major foothold here that may be the start of a permanent expansion onto this side of the border. They're even growing marijuana in our national parks, one expert says.

Mexico's cartel families and their associates have moved into cities in the southwestern U.S. as part of their ongoing drug selling and distribution operations, according to an alert from the U.S. Justice Department's Drug Intelligence Center, first reported April 11 by Mexican media.

Mexico Drug Cartel
Alexandre Meneghini, AP
Morgue employees take a body, found in a mass grave, into the local morgue in Matamoros, Mexico, on April 8. Investigators have uncovered at least 116 bodies in mass graves in the northern state of Tamaulipas.
Roberta Jacobson, deputy secretary of state for Mexico and Canada, said on April 12 that Mexican drug cartels are now operating in 230 American cities. Drug trafficking "is not a crisis that affects only the border," Jacobson said. ""It's a crisis in our cities across the country."

The Los Angeles Times reported this week about a member of Mexico's powerful Sinaloa cartel who operated a cocaine operation in South Carolina and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The report said there are similar rings run by cartel members living and working in Seattle, Minneapolis and Anchorage, Alaska.

The new warnings coincide with the discovery of mass graves in the state of Tamaulipas, just south of Texas, with at least 116 bodies in them earlier this week, and a discovery late Wednesday of 26 bodies in a mass grave in Durango.

The Mexican government says the Los Zetas drug cartel is responsible for the Tamaulipas murders. So far, about 35,000 people have died in the Mexican drug wars since 2006.

The cartel-related violence is spreading to the U.S., law enforcement officials say. And it all starts at the border.

AOL News spoke with Sylvia Longmire, 36, former Air Force Special Agent, former senior border security analyst for the State of California and author of the upcoming book "Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico's Drug Wars," about what's at stake for the U.S.

AOL News: What happened to turn Mexico into such a war zone?

Longmire: Colombia had a stranglehold on the cocaine trade until we cracked down on them in the 1980s. Then Mexicans took over, and they were really good at it. It was just a couple of crime families, and it was fairly peaceful. They didn't touch kids or family members. After President Calderone was elected in 2006, he tried to fight them, and it all blew up in his face.

Paint a picture of what Mexico is like now.

There are six or seven main cartels and a dozen or so tiny organizations. It's hard to find a patch of soil in Mexico that's not somehow touched or controlled by the drug traffickers. The most brutal are the Los Zetas, who were originally Mexican Army special forces soldiers. To uphold their reputation, they have gotten unspeakably violent. They routinely behead people and put their heads on spikes, stuff like that. They want to be known as the most brutal. In some areas, the police have no power or have been forced to work with the cartels.

Could the cartels really bring this lawlessness and violence into the U.S.?

They already have, and most Americans don't know it. The drug war is here, and there's the potential for much more to come. Not only do the cartels have a widespread system in place in our cities and on our highways to transport and sell drugs; we're seeing more cross-border kidnappings and ransom. The original cartel hit men have been killed or arrested, and they're hiring teenagers in the U.S. who don't have the same level of expertise and leave a lot of collateral damage.

There was a beheading in Chandler, Arizona, last year that was the first confirmed drug war beheading in the U.S. A San Diego gang tied to a Mexican cartel killed people by dissolving their bodies in acid. The cartels are running meth labs here that compete directly with American meth labs. And they're growing marijuana in our national parks right under our noses.

Which parks?

The cartels are growing vast expanses of marijuana in remote forests of many national parks, like Mount Shasta National Forest and Sequoia National Park in California, to name just a couple. The cartels are also growing marijuana in Kentucky, Tennessee, even Michigan. We're talking millions of acres. To defend their crops, they're armed to the teeth with assault weapons. There have been law enforcement personnel in the parks shot and killed by Mexican nationals.

Why don't most Americans know the extent of the Mexican drug cartels' influence in the U.S.?

Sinaloa cartel drug trafficking gang
Francisco Vega, AFP / Getty Images
Juan Miguel Valle Beltran, aka "El Boxer," an alleged member of Mexico's Sinaloa drug cartel, is presented at a press conference at Tijuana State Police headquarters in January.
Americans have confused the issue of immigration with what is a serious national security issue at the border -- and drug traffickers have capitalized on the confusion. Illegal immigration is controversial, but worrying about Juan and Maria is totally separate from the issue of criminal drug trafficking. The cartels have been able to hide behind the immigration issue. It's perfect for them that the attention is on illegal aliens, not them.

U.S. drug intelligence says Mexican cartels are "operating" in 230 cities in nine regions of the U.S. What does that mean?

They move the drugs up here into major hubs like Chicago, and they control the transport into smaller communities. They make extensive use of local gangs. The Juarez cartel in Chicago hires local gangs like the Latin Kings to help with distribution.

Who's growing marijuana for the cartels in the national parks?

It works like a terrorist cell structure. The cartels hire Mexicans often by coercion and bring them to the U.S. They provide them with irrigation tools and camping equipment, leave them in a park and tell them they'll be there for four to five months during the growing season. The Mexicans employed by the cartels don't know each other or know who they're working for. If they get arrested by the U.S., they can't spill anything because they have no information.

Some of the more outspoken sheriffs on the U.S. border say that illegal aliens are being threatened by the cartels more than anyone. True?

In some cases, yes. Immigrants are becoming increasingly victimized by cartels forcing them to take drugs and guns across the border by threatening to kill them or kill their families who are already in the U.S. They're scared enough as it is and don't have much choice [but] to go along with it.

Are the reports that the U.S. exports as many weapons down to Mexico as the cartels bring drugs into the U.S. true?

This is a very delicate political issue. Nobody knows for sure where the cartels' weapons come from because they can't all be traced. They do use military-grade weapons, but their weapons of choice are pistols and AK-47s. Most of the weapons that have been successfully traced have been traced back to the U.S.

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Why is it such a delicate issue?

The NRA will argue to the death that's it not true that the cartels' drug weapons come from the U.S. I'm former military and law enforcement, and I have guns in my house. I'm very pro-gun. I love the Second Amendment. I don't like it, though, when it's used for political reasons and to prevent the effective pursuit of policies to address weapons trafficking.

But it's hard to comprehend the insane amount of influence the NRA wields. The NRA says the cartels' weapons are not coming from the U.S., and nobody goes against them because of the number of votes they get politicians. It's sad. The Mexican government is very angry about it.

What does the immediate future hold?

The cartels are testing us. If they find out they can overwhelm us and continue to get away with murders and kidnappings, they'll spread even deeper in the U.S. Drug interdiction is not working. There is no strategy in place to separate the issue of illegals from criminal traffickers. Both the U.S. and Mexican government need to do some rethinking, because the situation is only getting worse.
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