Thomas A. Constantine
Drug Enforcement Administration
United States Department of Justice
Senate Foreign Relations Committee
International Drug Trafficking Organizations in Mexico
Dirksen Senate Office Building
August 8, 1995
Note: This document may not reflect changes made in actual delivery.
Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee: I'm pleased to appear before you today to discuss the growing role of international drug trafficking organizations operating in Mexico and to tell you what the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is doing to attack these organizations that are responsible for smuggling tons of illegal drugs across the U.S./Mexico border.
Mexico is pivotal to the success of any U.S. drug strategy. Not only do we share a common border, through which three-fourths of the cocaine enters our country, but Mexico has long been a major source country for heroin and marijuana. Within the last few years, it has also become a major source country for methamphetamine, as well as a transit country for chemicals, especially ephedrine, used in the manufacture of methamphetamine.
My purpose at this hearing today is to talk about the drug trafficking situation and to highlight our concerns about the increased role of these international drug gangs operating in Mexico. My comments will be limited to observations on trafficking organizations and their methods of smuggling, the law enforcement communities' efforts to work with Mexico, and an assessment of our chances for success in decreasing the flood of illegal drugs that enter this country each day and have a devastating impact on the citizens on both sides of the border.
A Glimpse of the Problem
Mr. Chairman, an important 1989 drug seizure gave us a glimpse of the magnitude of the problem law enforcement faces and also illustrates just how important Mexico is to our efforts to control illegal drugs coming into our country. In late 1989, DEA made America's largest cocaine seizure on record (over 21.5 tons) in Sylmar, California.
This cocaine came across the border at El Paso and was trucked to the West Coast. Drug law enforcement was encouraged by such a huge seizure, and we were convinced that we had seriously wounded the Colombian drug organizations by preventing such a large amount of illegal drugs from reaching our streets.
But, we realized our encouragement was premature when we analyzed seized records. What we found was even more astounding. We learned that during only a 3-month period, the organization had succeeded in smuggling 55 tons of cocaine into the U.S. This cocaine had been trucked to Los Angeles and had already been distributed on our streets.
One of the most disturbing aspects of this case is that ten years ago, we measured drug seizures in grams and pounds. Today, we routinely measure seizures in tons-even multitons. In January, for example, in Pasadena, Texas, a suburb of Houston, we seized 6.5 tons of cocaine. In July, we seized over 5 tons of cocaine in the border town of El Paso. And one of the primary reasons for these multiton shipments of cocaine is the efficient and mutually-rewarding relationship that has emerged between the cocaine mafia in Colombia and the drug trafficking groups operating in Mexico.
In fact, Mr. Chairman, we estimate that the Colombian drug mafia is using Mexico as a cocaine safe haven to store, at any one time, as much as 70 to 100 tons of cocaine that will eventually be smuggled across the U.S. border for distribution on American streets. This is enough to provide a line of cocaine to every man, woman, and child on this planet--and then some. At a conservative estimate, this cocaine would be worth over $700 million to $1 billion on America's streets.
Role of the International Drug Traffickers
The fact that these traffickers have been able to accommodate the transportation needs of the Cali cocaine mafia is not something that happened overnight. Criminal organizations from Mexico have had decades of practice. Traditionally, the Mexican border economies have been significantly affected by the smuggling activities into and out of the United States. It was these organized smuggling organizations that rose to prominence in the late 1960s and 1970s when marijuana trafficking presented the potential for huge profits.
During the early 1980's, most of the Colombian cocaine entered the United States through South Florida by way of the Caribbean. But, traffickers were forced to find new routes when U.S. drug agencies increased enforcement action in the Caribbean and South Florida. The Colombian drug lords naturally turned to the trafficking groups in Mexico which had what they were looking for: proximity to the United States, a 2,000 mile expanse of border offering unlimited smuggling possibilities, and an already established drug trafficking infrastructure that stood ready to serve their needs.
The drug trafficking organizations easily adapted their operations to include cocaine trafficking, and by the mid-80's, were well-established and reliable transporters of Colombian cocaine. Delegating cocaine transportation to the traffickers in Mexico was a tactical decision on the part of the Cali mafia. With the transportation assistance of these traffickers, the cocaine barons could now move larger bulk quantities through Mexico which would have been logistically impossible to move by any other means. By turning the riskiest part of the cocaine distribution cycle (the transportation) over to these traffickers, the Cali mafia could turn its attention to other aspects of their cocaine enterprise. This drug trafficking partnership has become one of both convenience and profit.
One of the first traffickers to move cocaine through Mexico and to the U.S. was Juan Ramon Matta-Ballesteros, a Honduran, who, from the mid-'70s to the mid-'80s, was actively involved with the Mexican Guadalajara Cartel. This was the group responsible for the kidnapping torture and murder of DEA Special Agent Enrique (Kiki) Camarena in 1985. The death of Agent Camarena outraged the American public. Matta-Ballesteros has been convicted in three separate U.S. cases and is serving a term of life imprisonment.
Emerging Traffickers Coming into their Own
Today, there is no question that drug traffickers operating in Mexico have become major players in the international drug trade. These veteran traffickers have been good students and have learned valuable lessons from the drug experts--the Cali mafia. They have seen the benefit (and profits) of working together in a partnership to provide a needed transportation service to the cocaine organizations in Colombia. Receiving payment in both cash and cocaine, they have begun to establish their own cocaine distribution networks and territories, stretching from the Southwest border areas as far as New York. In effect, the Cali mafia has been a willing partner in helping these organizations create distribution and sales networks in the U.S.
Like the Cali mafia, these trafficking organizations have demonstrated their flexibility to change trafficking routes when law enforcement action along any one route becomes too risky to their business. These drug groups have also followed the lead of their predecessors by expanding and diversifying their product line. Sophisticated trafficking organizations based in Mexico now manufacture methamphetamine and smuggle the precursor chemicals necessary for its manufacture. And, perhaps most important, as they have expanded their role in the drug trade, they have made valuable worldwide contacts, which will be necessary as they continue to establish themselves as important players in the world of illegal drugs.
There are a number of trafficking groups in Mexico that have gained a firm foothold in the trafficking of drugs, but I'd like to take a moment to describe the four major drug trafficking organizations that work closely with the Cali mafia:
The organization sometimes referred to the "Tijuana Cartel," is headed by Benjamin Arellano-Felix and his brother Francisco. They control most of the drugs crossing the border on the West Coast between Tijuana and Mexicali.
Feuding between this group and other organizations has become increasingly violent. In fact, it was the feuding between the Arrellano-Felix organization and rival drug dealers that led to the killing of Catholic Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas-Ocampo at the Guadalajara airport in 1993
The Arellano-Felix brothers are currently the subjects of a nationwide manhunt by law enforcement authorities for their involvement in the Cardinal's killing. On June 23, Mexican authorities arrested Hector Luis Palma-Salazar, the leader of a rival drug organization that is believed to be behind the attempted assassinations of the Arellano-Felix brothers, as well as the murder of Cardinal Posadas-Ocampo. Benjamin and Francisco Arellano-Felix have both been indicted in San Diego, California, and are DEA fugitives.
The Caro-Ouintero Organization
The Caro-Quintero organization is involved in the cultivation, processing, smuggling and distribution of heroin and marijuana and the transportation of Colombian cocaine into the U.S. This organization was previously led by Rafael Caro-Quintero, known as the "Mexican Rhinestone Cowboy," who began his criminal career at the young age of 12 or 13 as an apprentice to Pedro Aviles, a notorious Mexican drug trafficker.
Caro-Quintero is currently in a Mexican maximum security prison for his involvement in the kidnaping, torture and murder of DEA Special Agent Enrique Camarena, as well as for marijuana and cocaine trafficking. His brother, Miguel Caro-Quintero, now runs the organization, and is under indictment in Tucson and Denver.
One of the most notorious and powerful of these trafficking organizations is the Amado Carrillo-Fuentes organization, sometimes referred to as the "Juarez Cartel." Carrillo-Fuentes has been the chief transporter for the recently arrested Cali mafia leader Miguel Rodriguez-Orejuela.
Carrillo-Fuentes owns several airline companies, which enables him to fly 727s from Colombia into Juarez, where he runs his organization from his ranch headquarters. Increasingly, murders in Juarez have been associated with Carrillo-Fuentes. In July, the leader of the juvenile gangs he recruits to smuggle drugs across the border was found shot 23 times in the head. Here in the United States, Carrillo-Fuentes has been indicted in Miami on heroin and marijuana charges, and in Dallas on cocaine charges.
Another influential Mexican trafficker acting in concert with the Cali mafia is Juan Garcia-Abrego, who is involved in smuggling drugs from the Yucatan area in Mexico to South Texas and up to New York. Juan Garcia-Abrego was recently added to the FBI's top ten most wanted fugitives, with a $2 million reward for his capture. This is the first time an international drug trafficker has been included on the FBI list.
This organization transports large quantities of cocaine for the Cali mafia, as well as marijuana and heroin for other traffickers. Garcia-Abrego pioneered deals in which Mexican traffickers take payment in cocaine, which substantially raised their profits, and at the same time diversified their involvement from beyond smuggling to the role of suppliers to their own drug distribution networks. He and his organization are notorious for the violence they employ to further and protect their illicit trade.
He also ships bulk amounts of cash for the Cali mafia. During a four-year period, from 1989 to 1993, $53 million was seized in connection with the Garcia-Abrego organization. Two American Express bankers in Brownsville, Texas, were indicted for laundering $30 million for Garcia-Abrego, and to date, 70 members of his organization have been prosecuted and convicted in the U.S. Juan Garcia-Abrego has been indicted in Houston and remains a fugitive.
Expanding Influence: Cocaine and Methamphetamine
DEA is very concerned about the expanding role of drug organizations based in Mexico which are playing an increasingly larger role in the shipment and distribution of cocaine and methamphetamine to the United States.
In the last few years, we've seen international trafficking organizations make major changes in their efficiency in transporting bulk shipments of cocaine to transporting organizations in Mexico. Traditionally trafficking organizations used twin-engine general aviation aircraft to transport cocaine from Colombia to transhipment locations in Mexico and the Caribbean. Today, however, the Cali mafia has bought passenger jets (like 727's) gutted them, and are using them to transport multiton loads of cocaine to the trafficking organizations in Mexico. In March of this year, for example, a Caravelle jet aircraft was seized in the Mexican State of Sonora, after being abandoned by traffickers when its tires became stuck in the dirt runway. Mexican Government forces later seized 2.8 tons of cocaine that are believed to have been off-loaded from that Caravelle.
Law enforcement has also uncovered two tunnels built to move cocaine from Mexico into the United States. The first was discovered in Arizona in 1990. The second nearly-completed tunnel was discovered in 1993 near the Tijuana Airport and led to an unfinished warehouse in the United States.
U.S. law enforcement is also concerned about the growing role of trafficking gangs operating in Mexico involved in the methamphetamine trade. We directly attribute the increased amounts of methamphetamine available in the U.S. to these trafficking organizations which have replaced domestic outlaw motorcycle gangs as the predominant methamphetamine producers, traffickers, and distributors.
Unfortunately, DEA is very much aware of the problem of these methamphetamine gangs operating in the U.S. Last summer, DEA Special Agent Richard Fass was shot and killed in Tucson by a methamphetamine trafficker during an undercover operation. The ring leader of the gang responsible for Agent Fass' death has still not been apprehended and is believed to be in Mexico. The DEA is currently working with both the FBI and Mexican authorities to apprehend him.
In the last three years, these trafficking organizations have virtually saturated the western United States market with high-purity methamphetamine, known also as "speed" or"crank." In some areas of California, it has now reportedly replaced cocaine as the drug of choice. With a saturated West Coast market, these traffickers have begun to expand their markets to the East Coast and in the South. DEA's southern offices report a growing presence of these trafficking groups providing methamphetamine to domestic trafficking organizations in rural and suburban areas of Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and the Carolinas.
As supplies have increased, prices have fallen, making it a cheap alternative to cocaine. Some have called it the "poor man's cocaine." In 1991, for example, the lowest pound price nationwide was $6,000. Today, in California, methamphetamine sells for between $2,500 and $3,600 per pound.
With increased availability, methamphamine use has increased. According to the Drug Abuse Warning Network, the number of emergency room episodes involving methamphetamine has increased steadily since 1991, particularly in the West. From 1991 to 1993, episodes more than doubled in both Los Angeles and Phoenix.
The dominance of Mexico-based, poly-drug organizations in methamphetamine trafficking is further evidence of their growing sophistication. The smuggling skills developed while transporting cocaine for the Cali mafia has enabled these organizations to branch out into moving other contraband, such as precursor chemicals, especially ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, used in the manufacture of methamphetamine .
They have established international connections in Europe, Asia and the Far East to obtain the shipment of tons of precursor chemicals, particularly ephedrine, to addresses in both United States and Mexico. During 1993 and 1994, the majority of ephedrine shipments destined for Mexico were supplied by such diverse countries as China, India, the Czech Republic, and Switzerland. From mid-1993 to early 1995, DEA documented the diversion of almost 170 tons of ephedrine used in illicit methamphetamine production. It's important to note, however, that DEA has obtained cooperation from many of these countries to stem the flow of chemicals going to Mexico.
It's difficult to predict where this newest surge of methamphetamine use and trafficking will lead, but we must not assume that it has peaked. Unlike other drugs, methamphetamine is one that these criminal organizations can control entirely from beginning to end. They have the international contacts to obtain the necessary precursor chemicals to make the drug. They have the clandestine labs to process the chemicals into methamphetamine on both sides of the border. They have expanded their distribution networks across the nation by the use and intimidation of illegal aliens. And, unlike their previous role as middle-men moving cocaine and heroin, they can keep 100 percent of the profits from their methamphetamine sales.
U. S. law enforcement may be in for a difficult and violent few years as we work to get the methamphetamine problem under control. We've already seen "meth" smuggling gangs face off against each other. Recently, in San Diego, a confrontation between meth smuggling groups with ties to Mexico resulted in 26 homicides. There may be more bloodshed on our streets, as these drug gangs fight to protect (and expand) their drug turf.
In response to the threats of the Mexico-based trafficking organizations and their surrogate drug gangs operating here in the United States, DEA has taken a number of steps to work with our law enforcement partners in Mexico, as well as with our Federal, state, and local colleagues here at home.
DEA has joined forces with the FBI in a Southwest Border Initiative that targets the major Mexican trafficking organizations for enforcement actions. Combined teams of state, local and federal law enforcement led by DEA and FBI Special Agents are working together with a common goal of disrupting these gangs and bringing their leaders to justice.
For the first time, the DEA, the FBI, the Department of Justice Criminal Division, and respective U.S. Attorneys in every state along the Southwest Border are coordinating both intelligence and manpower resources against a common enemy--the poly-drug trafficking organizations that are transporting increased amounts of cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine across our borders. Both the DEA and the FBI hold high expectations for the success for this operation.
Three new binational Border Task Forces have been established and will focus on the four principal trafficking organizations. Senior personnel of the DEA, FBI, and DOJ Criminal Division serve on a U.S./Mexican Plenary Group, working to enhance our cooperation against narcotics, money laundering, arms smuggling, and other crimes.
Mr. Chairman, in this open forum I cannot explain the specifics of how this new initiative will work, but I would be happy to discuss this in more detail in a closed session or a private briefing.
Our support for Mexico's drug fighting efforts is critical to their success--and ultimately to our own. Attorney General Reno and Mexican Attorney General Antonio Lozano-Gracia have pledged to work cooperatively to address the problems. Hopefully, a close and coordinated law enforcement response by our two countries will have an impact on this growing problem.
Future Threats: An Assessment
There is no question that the international drug trafficking organizations operating in Colombia and Mexico have had a direct impact on the multiton quantities of cocaine law enforcement is forced to deal with today. These organizations have proven to be a serious threat to both the United States and Mexico.
In recent years, as the political and economic ties between the United States and Mexico have strengthened, a new generation of international traffickers have been able to carve out an ever larger share of the world's drug trade and pose a growing threat on both sides of the border. We've seen these trafficking organizations grow from low-level smuggling groups to sophisticated organizations that smuggle more and more drugs of every kind--cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and now methamphetamine--into the U.S. They are increasingly being paid for their transportation expertise with cocaine, a move that could prove to be the undoing of the Cali mafia and could shift the balance of power within the worldwide cocaine trade.
Mr. Chairman, in a few years down the road, I believe it's entirely possible that these newly emerging groups could rise to an equal (or superior) footing with the Cali mafia. If this happens, life as we know it in both the United States and Mexico will change dramatically. They care little for the devasting impact they have on the people of Mexico and the United States. They are international criminal elements that must be dealt with.
The President of Mexico, Ernesto Zedillo, has publically stated to the American media that drug trafficking is a threat to Mexican national security, not only because of the crime that is inherent in such activity, but also because of the growing wealth that enables traffickers to corrupt police and government institutions.
As these organizations grow in wealth and sophistication, they threaten to overwhelm the capabilities of any law enforcement system, including Mexico. By comparison, we have a professional law enforcement system in the United States, at the Federal, state and local level, that promotes and encourages high standards in recruitment, training, internal inspections, standards of operations and accountability to electecl officials.
We have a criminal justice system that is quick to respond to charges of unethical or corrupt actions on the part of law enforcement. It has helped to professionalize our law enforcement agencies and insure a continuing quest for ethics and integrity. Despite our best efforts, unethical or illegal activities do occasionally occur within the ranks of our law enforcement agencies, requiring swift and decisive government action to preserve the public's faith and trust.
As a society, we provide modern and sophisticated resources to our law enforcement agencies to combat the criminal elements confronting them. The law enforcement institutions in Mexico do not presently have an infrastructure similar to those in the U.S. The development of such institutions will require a substantial commitment of time and resources to achieve the necessary level of professionalism. The potential exists that if this is not done, they may be overwhelmed by the wealth and influence of the drug organizations.
We are not alone in recognizing this problem. Attorney General Lozano has moved to have special police units report directly to him. He has announced a plan to include reviews of all Federal police officers and prosecutors, with mandatory drug testing, to combat internal corruption. I cite this only to illustrate that the Mexican government itself recognizes this is a problem.
It is imperative that we work with our partners in Mexico to blunt the influence these drug traffickers are having in both our countries. It is also imperative that our own Federal, state, and local law enforcement continue to work cooperatively together to make the best use of our resources, as well as to increase our impact on these trafficking organizations. Surely, when we speak of tons of drugs coming across our borders and causing tremendous damage to the health and well-being of our citizens, we are talking of a national security threat that demands our immediate and continuous attention.
DEA is hopeful that future counterdrug efforts with Mexico will be successful. In the past year, Mexico has instituted new programs that include attempts to professionalize its law enforcement institutions and increase cross-border cooperation to address the threat of the international traffickers. The direct and cooperative communication between Attorney General Reno and Attorney General Lozano should be of great help in securing a coordination of our resources to address a common problem. The threat is serious--and it is real.