Drug policy analysts say self-reported surveys are subject to exaggeration, particularly when local and state law enforcement agencies are looking for federal grant money to bolster their budgets.
“At a time when agency budgets are being cut, you want to demonstrate that you are protecting the public from a menace,” said Eric E. Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, a drug- and policing-policy reform group. “If you say there are Mexican henchmen in 1,000 cities, you don’t want to cut their budget.”
More than a year after Murtha’s death, NDIC issued its second report in August 2011, titled “National Drug Threat Assessment.” In it, the center modified the 1,286 number by saying Mexican “transnational criminal organizations” were “operating in more than a thousand U.S. cities during 2009 and 2010.”
Drug policy analysts said the NDIC number and other questionable claims have important consequences.
“We have no idea how many Mexican drug cartel operatives are out there and where they are, and these kinds of claims are a really big problem for public policy,” said David A. Shirk, a political science professor at the University of San Diego who examines Southwest border issues. “Citizens have a right to know if federal agencies are doing their jobs, and without verifiable information it calls a lot of this work into question.”
Although the DEA declined to release the list of cities, The Post was able to pinpoint the locations of hundreds of them by analyzing a map included with an early version of an NDIC report.
The Post contacted police officials in 24 cities. While a few said they found possible connections to the cartels, officials in 18 cities said they were unaware of cartel-related activity in their communities.
NDIC reported a Juárez Cartel connection in the former mining town of Ladd, Ill., in the north-central part of the state. Ladd Police Chief William Gaefcke said he can think of only one reason why his city of 1,300 residents was listed in the report. A few years back, his department, along with two federal agents, investigated a claim that the cartel was smuggling assault weapons in the region.
The investigation went nowhere.
“The case was dismissed as unfounded,” Gaefcke said.
NDIC reported that the Juárez Cartel was tied to a drug operation in Garden City, Kan., made famous as the site of the murder trial depicted in Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.”
“We have drugs in our community,” said Capt. Michael Utz of the Garden City Police Department. “But as far as the Juárez Cartel operating in this city, I don’t have any information on that.”
NDIC reported Tijuana Cartel activity in South Lake Tahoe, Calif.
“I haven’t seen a link to the Tijuana Cartel,” Police Chief Brian T. Uhler said. “That’s surprising to me. There are gangs here that have a statewide connection, and there may be linkages to the cartels. I guess an affiliation can mean a lot of different things in law enforcement.”