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Mexican Drug Cartels Target U.S. Heartland

Crime: Officials say illegal immigrants are using interstates as pipeline to bring cocaine, methamphetamines to Midwest and Rocky Mountain areas where abuse is burgeoning.

Los Angeles Times, Wednesday, December 10, 1997

By RICHARD A. SERRANO, L.A. Times Staff Writer

CHEYENNE, Wyo.--Here in the land of wide-open spaces and clean living, as well as in other communities across the midsection of America, Mexican drug cartels are opening new and lucrative markets for contraband brought north past the Rio Grande.

Eager to create ambitious distribution points, the cartels are successfully targeting traditionally God-fearing communities like Cheyenne and Casper in Wyoming -- and other cities in Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa -- and are bringing with them the drugs that long have plagued larger urban centers such as Los Angeles.

Some years back, Los Angeles gangs brought drive-by shootings and drug dealing to the American heartland. But "our greatest problem today is illegal aliens and drugs," said Tom Pagel, director of the state Department of Criminal Investigation in Cheyenne. "The vast majority of this is being transported up from Mexico, and we're getting our butts kicked over it."

Smuggling vast quantities of methamphetamines and hustling their standard cocaine shipments, the Mexican drug criminals are aggressively trying to outmarket the old Colombia cartels they have replaced.

The influence of the Mexicans, who are taking over the drug routes once run by Colombian dealers, and the level of public corruption in Mexico have become major sources of friction between that country and the United States.

In October, the U.S. government reported that more than 40% of the illegal immigrants who were deported to Mexico last year had first been convicted of drug charges in U.S. courts. Those numbers fit an overall pattern of an increase in crimes committed by illegal immigrants.

The offenses are often occurring in cities and towns where, in the past, the worst crime was likely to be transporting stolen cattle. The situation has fueled a sharp increase in teenage narcotics use, and the courts and drug treatment centers are seeing more youngsters than ever before.

Kathleen Sloan, an anti-drug treatment specialist here, is surprised at the number of youths -- some just 14 -- who pass through her doors these days.

"It began about two years ago," she said. "What was really noticeable was that it wasn't experimental drug use any more. In the last eight months it's gotten to where it seems out of control."

The upsurge in drugs also has prompted a keen awareness in places like Cheyenne that law enforcement must act decisively to reverse the trend. Already, police here are taking Spanish-language training, and federal prosecutors have recently put away a Mexican national working as a major drug primo in Wyoming.

In Washington, officials have been saying for some months that the center of America is no longer an outpost garrisoned off from the drug menace. They warn that as long as there is a demand, even in places as small and distant as Cheyenne, there will someday come a supplier.

White House Drug Policy Director Barry R. McCaffrey said recently that "Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, the Rocky Mountain heartland of America, are increasingly becoming populated with Mexican drug trafficking organizations and violent gangs using this major transportation crossroads as a trans-shipment center."

Federal drug enforcement officials say Interstate 25 is an historic smuggling route north out of El Paso, and that Interstates 70 and 80, the nation's main east-west corridors, are increasingly becoming drug pipelines.

Cheyenne is located at the cloverleaf of Interstates 25 and 80. The drugs move north and east; the money flows west and south.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, said it was "absolutely critical" to pressure Mexico to clean up its side of the border.

"Yearly we lose tens of billions of dollars in added health care costs, crime, on-the-job accidents, and family violence directly related to the presence of drugs in our society," he said at a recent caucus meeting. "All of this from substances produced illegally and smuggled into this country."

Grassley's home state, more recognizable for corn and family values, has not escaped the eye of Mexican drug traffickers.

Judge Carol Egly of Des Moines has noticed an increase in the past four years of drug users. "We're getting many that are totally whacked out and crazy," she said.

She also has seen a growing number of Mexican nationals appearing on drug-pushing charges in her courtroom, unable to speak English or understand the charges against them. And yet, she said, they realize that even if they go to prison and then are deported to Mexico, it will not keep them from returning.

"Why Des Moines? Why Iowa?" Egly asks. "I still don't know the answer."

She suggested that local meatpacking plants have attracted Mexican workers in the past, and therefore provide an infrastructure for others who may want to come to Iowa to push dope.

"There are things going on at the border encouraging immigration, both legal and illegal," she said. "We've heard about billboards on the Rio Grande border advertising jobs in Iowa."

Most of the Mexican nationals she sees are in their early 20s, running drugs out of a motel or apartment house. Their top-selling item is crystal methamphetamine because some of its key ingredients are outlawed in the U.S. but can be legally obtained in Mexico.

In nearby Omaha, in what is believed to be the largest hearing of its kind there, 15 men and women, most of them Mexicans and wearing headsets to follow the proceedings in Spanish, were prosecuted last year in federal court for ferrying Mexican heroin into Omaha, Des Moines and Denver.

In Kansas City, Kan., a dozen people -- nine of them undocumented immigrants from Mexico -- were arrested this summer on charges of regularly shipping hundreds of pounds of marijuana and cocaine. The dope was allegedly packed into airtight metal containers that were then hidden in trucks and cars and driven from the Mexican states of Zacatecas and Chihuahua.

The couriers reportedly were paid as much as $20,000 a trip to drive the drugs to motels in south Kansas City, with some loads as large as two tons.

In Wyoming, one of the least populated states in the country, police chalked up 18 arrests on drug, illegal immigrant and firearms charges in just one 12-day span in October. Thirteen of the suspects were Mexican nationals.

At the same time, drug use has climbed steeply, primarily for methamphetamine, the most common narcotic from Mexico that Wyoming teenagers and young adults are smoking or shooting into their arms. The drug is particularly popular because it gives a fast and lasting high, and sharply curbs one's appetite.

In 1993, "meth" accounted for only 18% of Wyoming's drug-related arrests. So far this year, the figure is 46%.

Sloan, the certified addiction specialist at the Behavior Health Services center here, described two recent cases:

One was a 17-year-old girl, a straight-A high school senior who was "strung out" for two months before graduation and eventually dropped out of school. She is now clean.

"But once she got a hold of it, that was all she wanted," Sloan said. "She could be skinny and bulletproof."

The other case involved a 28-year-old man who came to the center in a psychotic tremor, throwing food, spitting, biting and urinating on himself and others. For three days he was held in restraints. When the man later came to, he protested that he was not an abuser. Rather, he said, his friends had forced the drug into him.

"He left here and who knows where he went?" Sloan said.

Law enforcement is fighting back. Last spring, the U.S. attorney's office for Wyoming successfully prosecuted 18 members of a drug ring run by a man known as "Christino."

His real name is Gonzalo Olivas, and he is a Mexican national who was twice convicted on drug charges in Colorado. Each time he went to prison and then was deported, only to return again. The last time he moved his base to Rock Springs, Wyo., an affluent section of the state because of a lucrative mining industry.

"Christino" paid cash for expensive cars, including a Corvette, and sent large amounts of money along the Western Union wire to his handlers in the south. His big-ticket item was methamphetamine, and he set up shop in a Rock Springs apartment where he paid off a local junkie in dope to run the door.

Finally, "Christino" and one of his chief lieutenants were sentenced to life in prison with no parole.

It was a victory for law enforcement, but still not the kind of overall picture that they would like their wholesome, big-sky state to project.

Said Stephen Miller, deputy director of the Division of Criminal Investigation: "This is hitting us all in the face all at once. Good Lord, what is happening here in Wyoming?