Of the seven Mexican organized crime groups that traffic drugs across the United States, the Sinaloa cartel dominates the business, selling most of the heroin, marijuana, methamphetamine and cocaine. One Mexican national-security expert estimated that the cartel moves a kilo of cocaine over the U.S. border about every 10 minutes.
The Sinaloa, named after a Mexican Pacific coast state, is headed by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, one of the world’s most brutal and sought-after drug lords.
Officials say the Sinaloa cartel typically sends its drugs across the border to distribution cells in cities such as Los Angeles. From there, dozens of operators — including truck drivers who conceal the packages amid shipments of fruits, vegetables and other consumer goods — bring the drugs east and north, unloading them at nondescript warehouses, condominiums and duplexes managed by the cartel.
The DEA has estimated that Mexican drug trafficking organizations now operate in 1,286 American cities. That number, however, includes both major regional hubs such as Chicago, with direct links to large Mexican cartels, and scores of communities where smaller trafficking groups happen to be led by Mexican citizens who may have no operational connections. The DEA said it was not able to provide a full list of the 1,286 cities.
Besides Los Angeles and Chicago, Atlanta has emerged as a major distribution hub. The access to interstate highways and a growing Hispanic population allow cartel members to travel freely and blend into the general population, leading the organizations to bulk up operations.
In Atlanta, officials said, four rival cartels are battling for control: the Beltran Leyva; remnants of La Familia Michoacana; the Knights Templar, a splinter group of La Familia; and the Sinaloa.
Seizures of heroin in the city have increased 70 percent in the past two years and traffickers are selling a better quality of “Mexican Brown” heroin to many who are already addicted to pharmaceutical painkillers, said Harry S. Sommers, the DEA’s special agent in charge of the Atlanta field division. The drug is now mostly being smoked or snorted, not injected by needle.
“There’s not a significant difference between Oxycontin and heroin,” Sommers said. “Sometimes they give the heroin away at first and get people hooked on it.”
The increasing amount of heroin agents are seeing in Chicago and Atlanta is reflected nationwide, a
ccording to the DEA. In the first nine months of this fiscal year, 1,394 kilograms of heroin were seized, compared with 487 kilos of heroin seized at the southwest border in fiscal year 2008 and 773 kilos in 2009. Heroin arrests nationwide are up, too. In the first nine months of this fiscal year, 3,350 people were arrested on heroin charges, compared with 2,510 in 2008.