Thursday, June 12, 2008


Cartels Driven By Desire For Big Payoff

When she was 10 years old, Patricia Montejano sat in a truck outside a stash house in Kansas waiting for a close relative. Although she didn't know exactly what was going on, she could sense the tension in the air.

She was in the company of a drug trafficker who was dropping a load of marijuana.

Montejano said she and her sisters always went along for the ride from JuA!rez to points throughout the United States because law enforcement officials were less likely to suspect an adult with children.

"It was very dangerous," said Montejano, now 26. "Things would clear up, but then ... would just go back and do it again."

Montejano was unknowingly part of a network of Mexican drug cartels that officials say is becoming a powerful supplier of illegal drugs in the United States.

And marijuana is the lynchpin, accounting for more than $8.5 billion in revenue for Mexican drug trafficking organizations in 2005, according to the most recent figures available from the Bush administration's Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Next in line, are cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin. Together, they account for slightly more than $5.3 billion each year.

Mexican officials point out that the demand for drugs in the U.S. is driving cartel activity in most cases. And U.S. officials are talking tough about addicts and recreational users who spend their money on the illegal drugs.

"The largest single source of their revenue is marijuana," said John P. Walters, Office of National Drug Control Policy director. "These killers ( cartel bosses ) pay assassins with dollars from marijuana users in the United States and it needs to stop.

"It's not a victimless activity. It's blood money. And every time somebody buys a joint, they need to remember they're contributing to the assassination and murder in Mexico."

Meanwhile, U.S. officials are focused on disrupting cartel activities.

Walters and others tout data showing recent decreases in the use of methamphetamine, cocaine and, among teens, marijuana. They, in part, attribute those trends to drug seizures and restrictions on the chemicals used to manufacture methamphetamine.

In fiscal year 2008, the nation will spend $3.2 billion on drug interdiction and the administration has requested an increase to $3.8 billion for fiscal 2009. President Bush also has asked Congress to approve $1.4 billion, most of it for Mexico, to bolster that nation's war on drugs.

"We have ( had ) unprecedented levels of success this year with respect to interdiction," said Michael Braun, Drug Enforcement Administration chief of operations. "Much of that success should go to Mexico President CalderA3n and his administration's strategy of taking on these very vicious and ruthless cartels nose-to-nose, head-to-head and not backing down."

Cartels move north

The growing violence in JuA!rez is one indication of the huge payoff waiting for the cartel that can control this portion of the Southwest border. Mexican cartels are establishing dominance in nearly every aspect of the nation's illegal drug trade, according to a recent U.S. Department of Justice report.

"Mexican ( drug trafficking organizations ) -- the principal smugglers and distributors of illicit drugs in the United States -- are exerting more control over illicit drug trafficking throughout the nation," according to the National Drug Threat Assessment -- 2008, released late last year.

The assessment also states that Colombian organizations are relying more on Mexican cartels to smuggle South American heroin into the U.S., "enabling Mexican ( organizations ) to control the flow of both Mexican and, increasingly, South American heroin into U.S. drug markets."

But the Mexican cartels are not satisfied simply moving someone else's product.

Expanded opium poppy cultivation and decreased eradication in Mexico also could increase the Mexican cartels' profile in heroin sales, the report states, adding that increasing purity of Mexican heroin might create a greater demand for the product.

The report also states that, despite success against the Colombian cartels, cocaine production is expected to remain stable and that Mexican cartels will be the "dominant distributors," with most of it flowing in through Texas.

Another opportunity for the Mexican cartels has been created by the success of law enforcement efforts to shut down methamphetamine labs in the U.S. The Mexican cartels have been setting up labs in northern Mexico, according to the assessment, and are now "the primary source of methamphetamine in U.S. drug markets."

Mexican cartels, and to a lesser degree Asian cartels, increasingly are sending members to grow marijuana in the United States, sometimes setting booby traps and posting armed guards on public lands.

As marijuana eradication efforts in the U.S. have increased, the cartels have turned to equipping residential homes with hydroponics and special lighting systems to grow marijuana. The indoor pot also is typically more potent because of the ability to control growing conditions.

However, "most of the marijuana available in the United States is lower-potency, commercial-grade marijuana produced in Mexico," the report states.

The cartels typically employ "low-level couriers" to smuggle cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine and heroin on overland routes across the Southwest border, the report states.

As the cartels evolve, so do the counter-drug agencies' tactics.

"We're always changing our strategies," Braun said. "And we've learned over the years that when we change our strategies, we cause traffickers to change their behavior. Every time we cause them to change their behavior, they become more vulnerable and our successes begin to rise."

An alternate solution proposed by some critics of the drug war is to legalize drugs -- marijuana in particular. They say the demand for the illegal supply would drop dramatically. The drug could be regulated to keep it out of the hands of youth, they say, and taxed to fund prevention and treatment.

The country's top counter-drug officials sneer at the idea.

"It's a silly argument put forth by people who have a hidden agenda to legalize drugs," said Rafael Lemaitre, a spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington, D.C. "It's not a responsible health policy to make marijuana more available in society."

Seeking help

After three or four years of transporting drugs for the cartels, Montejano said her relative was busted in a sting operation and sentenced to prison. After being released, the person sought help and has been clean for six years, Montejano said.

But Montejano descended into drug and alcohol addiction. Although her main problem was alcohol, she says she used cocaine to increase her stamina during drinking binges.

As long as she had a dealer, getting the drug was easy, she said. When the dealer disappeared she would go searching for a new connection.

Then, after three drunk-driving convictions, the loss of her license, and the threat of a jail sentence, which would have separated her from her daughter, she was given an option -- drug court, which requires treatment.

Administration officials point to some 2,000 drug courts for nonviolent offenders as a way to reduce demand. Funding random drug-testing programs at high schools is another administration goal.

The tab -- $3.5 billion a year -- about equals the money spent on interdiction, officials said.

"We're treating more people ( and ) we're seeing declines in drug use, which is all to the good, and we want to accelerate those," Walters said. "We get more progress by reducing supply and demand together."

However, there is a "treatment gap," Lemaitre said, which means more people are seeking treatment than can be accommodated in the programs.

Although treatment is not a quick fix, drug courts provide a way for some offenders to stay out of jail. That means they can become, or remain, gainfully employed.

Montejano entered drug court in 2004. At first, she said, she was rebellious and refused to comply with the program's rules. When she violated the rules, she went to jail for a day or two. And, each time, she had to begin the 18-month program over.

Clean for a year and three months, she now counsels people who are facing foreclosure on their homes and plans to become a social worker focusing on drug and alcohol counseling.

Montejano said she agrees with Walters' contention that people support cartels by buying illegal drugs. But her case might shine a light on one way to reduce demand in the U.S. -- expanding treatment for addictive behavior.

"I want to help exactly the way I was helped," Montejano said.

Newshawk: An Injury to One is an Injury to All
Votes: 0
Pubdate: Mon, 09 Jun 2008
Source: El Paso Times (TX)
Copyright: 2008 El Paso Times
Author: Chris Roberts

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