Atlantic Cities

No, Mexican Drug Cartels Are Not Actually Operating in 1,286 U.S. Cities

No, Mexican Drug Cartels Are Not Actually Operating in 1,286 U.S. Cities

In August 2011, the now-shuttered National Drug Intelligence Center released a report claiming that Mexican drug cartels were operating in 1,286 U.S. cities. In the two years since that report came out, politicians and media outlets have cited the NDIC's figure countless times. Headlines like "In small-town USA, business as usual for Mexican cartels", "Cartels Dispatch Agents Deep Inside U.S.", "Mexican Cartels Have Infiltrated Your City", "Border Patrol Union: Drug Cartels Have 'Representatives' in 2,000 U.S. Cities", and "Mexican drug cartels gain foothold in 1,286 US cities" all owe their provenance to the NDIC.  

But according to a new investigative report from the Washington Post, the figure is simply not true. The Post interviewed drug policy experts, local law enforcement agencies cited in the NDIC's report, and officials in the Justice Department. Nearly to a one, interview subjects said the NDIC's report was wrong. An anonymous representative of the Drug Enforcement Administration, which absorbed several dozen NDIC employees after the center closed last year, went so far as the tell the Post, “It’s not a DEA number. We don’t want to be attached to this number at all.” And of the 24 cities mentioned in the report that the Post contacted, law enforcement officials in 18 said they had no known cartel activity in their jurisdictions. 

So how did the NDIC come up with its fantastic figure? They started by broadly defining Mexican drug trafficking organizations to include any Mexican national who sold drugs in the U.S. (which is a lot like assuming that any person with Italian heritage who commits a crime is a member of the mafia). Using that definition, the NDIC began surveying small town police departments:

[T]he center used a methodology that federal law enforcement officials now say was questionable. NDIC field intelligence officers surveyed 1,200 law enforcement agencies across the nation and asked them if they had Mexican drug-trafficking organizations in their communities. Of those agencies, 1,039 said they did, according to the report. The center then added that total to a total based on case information kept by the Justice Department’s Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces, which reported that Mexican drug organizations were operating in 247 U.S. cities.

“The methodology was flawed from the start,” said one Justice Department official who was familiar with the report and also spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I heard that they just cold-called people in different towns, as many as they could, and said, ‘Do you have any Mexicans involved in drugs?’ And they would say, ‘Yeah, sure.’ ”

The "murky" definition and cold-call strategy may have led local law enforcement agencies to say yes when really they had no idea. Even Michael Walther, the former head of the NDIC (and the only person in the Post's story who defends the figure), acknowledged "it is difficult to determine what constitutes a Mexican cartel presence because there are varying degrees of separation between street dealers, distribution networks and operations south of the border." That distinction is probably a lot harder to ascertain when relying on the chief of police in a town of 1,300. 

Experts interviewed by the Post say there's plenty of evidence of actual cartel activity in U.S. cities, but they put the number closer to 250. Walther, meanwhile, has another explanation for why his former colleagues in the Justice Department have renounced the number his center published: "They like to paint a more positive portrait of the world."

Top image: Federal police patrol a street on a vehicle in the neighbourhood of Acapulco March 2, 2013. REUTERS/Henry Romero

Mike Riggs is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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