A new DEA map shows where cartels have influence in the US. Cartel operatives say 'it's bulls---.'

·6 min read
drugs mexico cartels
Mexican soldiers next to packages of marijuana at a military base in Tijuana on June 13, 2015. Reuters
  • A DEA report on drugs and drug trafficking details what the agency calls cartel influence in the US.

  • Security experts and cartel operatives in Mexico dispute the DEA's depiction.

  • They say the links are more tenuous than how the DEA describes them.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico - The US Drug Enforcement Administration recently released its annual National Drug Threat Assessment, in which it maps out the states where Mexican drug cartels have gained "influence."

When they were asked about that depiction of cartel presence in the US, security experts and cartel sources told Insider "it's bulls---."

The DEA's report said Mexican transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) "maintain great influence" in most US states, with the Sinaloa cartel and the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación showing the "biggest signs of expansion."

A map included in the report labeled the Sinaloa cartel, Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación, Cartel del Golfo, Organización de Beltran-Leyva, and Los Rojos as the most "influential" drug organizations, with presence in Texas, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Chicago, New York, Florida, Kansas, Colorado, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico.

"Mexican TCOs continue to control lucrative smuggling corridors, primarily across the SWB, and maintain the greatest drug trafficking influence in the United States," the report said, referring to the southwest border.

DEA map cartel influence in US
Major Mexican organized-crime groups' areas of influence in the US, according to the DEA's 2020 National Drug Threat Assessment. 2020 National Drug Threat Assessment

But operatives for the Sinaloa cartel and Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación interviewed by Insider said their organizations maintained "only clients or helpers" across the border and "not members of our organization." They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

"You would never see anyone in the US saying they are part of the organization because that is bulls---," a Sinaloa cartel operative told Insider. "The members and leaders of the organization are in Mexico, not in the US. What we have there are clients or associates, people helping transport, or gang members working with us."

The operative said most of the gangs or "associates" in the US worked as independents.

"We wholesale to them, and what they do to that merchandise is their problem. We don't give a f---. They can lose it, sell it, snort it, whatever, as long as they pay up," he said.

One of the most prominent cases used to prove Mexican cartels' presence in the US was that of Pedro and Margarito Flores, two brothers from Chicago accused of importing cocaine for the Sinaloa cartel.

Pedro and Margarito Flores
Pedro Flores, left, and his twin brother, Margarito Flores, in a wanted poster released by the US Marshals Service. AP Photo/U.S. Marshals Service

The Flores brothers admitted to smuggling at least 1,500 kilograms of cocaine for the Sinaloa cartel into the US every month between 2005 and 2008. According to their guilty pleas, they also sent more than $930 million in "bulk cash" back to the cartel in Mexico.

US authorities alleged the brothers were part of the Sinaloa cartel. But a phone call of a negotiation with a man identified in court records as then-Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, which was made public during Guzmán's trial in 2018, included the Flores brothers bargaining over the price of a 20-kilogram shipment of heroin.

"Do you think we can work something out where you can deduct 5 pesos from those for me?" a man identified as Pedro Flores said.

"How much are you going to pay for it?" said the other man on the call, whom prosecutors said was Guzmán.

'It just doesn't make sense'

Philadelphia cocaine drug bust
A fraction of the cocaine seized from a ship at a Philadelphia port at the US Custom House in Philadelphia on June 21, 2019. AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Alejandro Hope, a security analyst in Mexico and former official with CISEN, Mexico's top security intelligence organization, said the DEA warned of Mexican drug cartels being active in the US in order "to keep asking for money."

"It's DEA's bulls---. They have been doing this for years, and it just doesn't make sense. Cartels today are not structured, a hierarchy organization, but more like a decentralized network," Hope told Insider.

"The logic behind the DEA is to argue there is an invasion of external forces so they can justify more budget and support from the US," he said.

Neither DEA headquarters nor its offices in Texas and Arizona responded to requests for comment on the map.

The report described the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación as "one of the fastest growing cartels" and said the organization "smuggles illicit drugs into the United States by accessing various trafficking corridors in northern Mexico along the SWB including Tijuana, Juarez and Nuevo Laredo."

"The cartels dominate the drug trade influencing the United States market, with most cartels having a poly drug market approach that allows for maximum flexibility and resiliency of their operations," the report said.

The report didn't describe how these organizations maintained their presence in the US.

"The DEA has a problem with semantics. What does influence actually mean? What does presence even mean? An associate is no other thing but a client," Hope said.

US drug market mexican cartel control DEA map
The cartel areas of influence map from the 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment. DEA NDTA 2016

An operative for Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación said the organization had a large group of members in Mexico who are "mostly on the armed side of the operations," while most contacts in the US were clients.

"Most of what we can call members of the Jalisco organization are on the arms, like sicarios and some producers that are on a payroll. But everyone else is either a client we are selling to or an association to have access to certain route" for distribution in the US, he said.

Some intelligence officials say Mexican cartels do have a real presence on US soil but function differently there.

"The substantial difference is that drug criminal enterprises are not displaying force at the border with the US because it is not needed," a high-level foreign-intelligence official in Mexico who was granted anonymity so they could speak candidly. "We should take into account that keeping a low profile is good for their activities and business, just as any other corporation."

The official said cartel associates in the US had something like membership, even if they weren't part of the cartel structure, and "are using the brand" to prove their drugs' quality.

"We need to consider that they act just as another transnational company, with their level of organization, distribution, reach, and territory control," the official said. "They do have a presence in the US in how their drug has a brand backing up certain quality."

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