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Mexican Drug Cartels Move North

Federal agents escort Jes¿s Mart¿nez, a Tijuana police officer, after his arrest on charges of working with the Tijuana cartel. The GAO report praised recent Mexican actions against cartels.
Federal agents escort Jes¿s Mart¿nez, a Tijuana police officer, after his arrest on charges of working with the Tijuana cartel. The GAO report praised recent Mexican actions against cartels. (By Alexandre Meneghini -- Associated Press)

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By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 20, 2007

MEXICO CITY, Sept. 19 -- Mexican drug cartels now operate in almost every region of the United States and bring in as much as $23 billion a year in revenue, according to a Government Accountability Office report that will be released Thursday.

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U.S. assistance has helped Mexico combat cartels, the report says, but those efforts have been hampered by Mexican government corruption and by the failure of key players in the United States, including the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, to coordinate better with Mexican law enforcement. The White House drug policy office, the report says, has prepared a counter-narcotics plan but has not discussed portions of the initiative that require Mexican cooperation with authorities in Mexico.

"The Office of National Drug Control Policy has to stop dropping the ball and doing sloppy work," Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who requested the report, said in an e-mail Wednesday. "They had plenty of time to forge a working relationship with the Mexican government, but it appears that nothing has been accomplished."

The agency, Grassley added, "needs to realize that we're in this fight together, and it's foolish to think we can implement an effective plan to stop the flow of drugs from Mexico on our own."

Patrick Ward, assistant deputy director of the White House drug office, said in an interview Wednesday that his office has had extensive contact with Mexican authorities about counter-narcotics plans since the GAO conducted its probe.

"Our cooperation with the Mexican government, especially in the last eight to 10 months since President [Felipe] Calder¿n took office, has been absolutely phenomenal," Ward said.

The report, an advance copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, is the starkest evidence yet of Mexico's emergence as the main conduit of illegal drugs into the United States. The share of cocaine arriving in the United States through Mexico, for instance, leapt from 66 percent in 2000 to 90 percent in 2005. Other transshipment points include Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Central America.

Combined, Mexican drug cartels generate more revenue than at least 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies, and the U.S. government's highest estimate of cartel revenue tops that of Merck, Deere and Halliburton.

Congressional aides said the report may lead to increased cooperation between the two countries and give more impetus to already well-advanced talks aimed at developing a massive U.S. aid package to fight drug trafficking in Mexico.

The report paints a troubling picture of bureaucratic tangles that impede drug control efforts: Operation Halcon, a successful, helicopter-based border surveillance program, was canceled in November 2006 because the United States and Mexico could not resolve accident liability issues. Failure to reach an accord allowing U.S. law enforcement officers to board suspicious Mexican-flagged ships has allowed drug traffickers to evade capture by dumping their loads at sea.

Even as drug production soars in Mexico, "a relatively small percentage of the estimated supply" of drugs is seized, the report says. Marijuana production, for instance, rose sharply from 7,000 metric tons in 2000 to 13,500 in 2003, before leveling off at about 10,000 metric tons in 2004 and 2005. But seizures changed little during that period.

Despite the disturbing trend lines, GAO investigators also saw positive signs. They praised Mexico for extraditing a record number of drug suspects to the United States in 2006 and said President Calder¿n, in office since December, has demonstrated "a new level of commitment to combating drug traffickers." The report praises Calder¿n for deploying 27,000 troops and police officers to fight cartels in eight Mexican states and for persuading his country's Congress to approve a 24 percent increase in the national security budget.

Mexico and the United States have made advances in joint efforts to crack down on money laundering, the report says, and technical support from the United States is helping Mexico develop plans for a more transparent criminal justice system with trials that involve oral arguments and are open to the public. The report says Mexican courts now primarily use a "Napoleonic inquisitorial model" -- in which judges review only written material -- that "has been vulnerable to the corrupting influences of powerful interests."

The amount of drugs flowing through Mexico is growing rapidly, spurred by growing demand in the United States, where 35 million people abuse illegal drugs, the report says. Methamphetamines appear to be the fastest-growing drug crossing the border. Though no one is sure how much methamphetamine reaches the United States, seizures along the border rose from 500 kilograms in 2000 to 2,700 in 2006, indicating "a dramatic rise in supply," the report says.

A climate of "impunity" for drug traffickers in Mexico has contributed to the trends. Mexican cartels are more violent and sophisticated than ever, taking advantage of advances in cellular and satellite technology to evade law enforcement, the report says.

Since 2000, Mexico has been taking steps to clean up corruption within the ranks of law enforcement, including firing more than 950 federal officers in 2006 and forming the Federal Investigative Agency, whose agents have to undergo background checks, the report notes.

Along with the well-known Tijuana, Gulf and Juarez cartels, the report identifies a lesser-known Mexican drug organization called "the Federation." The Federation, the report says, is an alliance of drug traffickers based in Sinaloa state near the city of Culiacan and has "the most extensive geographic reach in Mexico." "The Federation's influence in Sinaloa is so pervasive that Mexico seldom mounts counternarcotics operations in the interior of that state," the report says, citing U.S. and Mexican officials.

Correspondent Juan Forero in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.


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