The drug war in Mexico has been raging for almost a decade and news headlines suggest violence is only getting worse. Half a dozen Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) are vying for control of lucrative drug smuggling corridors, both along the border with the United States and within Mexico, while dozens of smaller “mini cartels” and criminal groups are fighting for the leftovers.

As a result, the United States has allocated more resources to its southwest border to prevent a spillover of violence. Nevertheless, an increasing number of incidents show that some spillover is already occurring, and that DTO-related violence is occurring well beyond the U.S.-Mexico border.[1] This article argues that it is important for U.S. law enforcement agencies across the country—not just those located on the U.S.-Mexico border—to understand the DTO threat to the United States, and to prepare accordingly.

DTOs’ Expanding U.S. Operations
DTOs are a known threat along the U.S.-Mexico border. Their penetration, however, extends much deeper into the United States than is commonly known among the public. Law enforcement officers who work in states far from the U.S.-Mexico border—and especially those who do not routinely work drug cases—do not have a working knowledge of the main Mexican DTOs, or in what type of activities they are involved. One could argue that this lack of understanding is concerning since, according to the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC), Mexican DTOs are operating (either directly or by proxy) in more than 1,000 U.S. cities (up from 230 in its 2008 report) and are responsible for roughly 90% of the illegal drugs sold and consumed in the United States.[2]

Several different counterdrug operations, investigations, and arrests in recent years illustrate the breadth of the DTOs’ reach. In October 2009, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the arrests of nearly 1,200 individuals on narcotics-related charges and the seizure of more than 11.7 tons of narcotics as part of a 44-month multiagency law enforcement investigation known as “Project Coronado.”[3] In just the two days prior to the announcement, 303 people in 19 states were arrested during the operation, which targeted the distribution network of the Mexican DTO La Familia Michoacana.[4]

The primary DTOs tend to have large drug operations running in major U.S. cities due to the higher local demand and ability to move drugs in and out of cities with ease. In April 2009, agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration arrested a Gulf Cartel associate in a hotel room at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor with more than $600,000 in alleged drug proceeds.[5] The Gulf Cartel sent an operative to Baltimore to find out what happened to the money, but he was arrested by the FBI and turned into an informant. In a U.S. court, the informant explained how he ran a direct distribution route through Little Rock, Wisconsin, Chicago, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Delaware, and Atlanta:[6] “driving across the country in a mobile home packed with millions of dollars’ worth of cocaine. Testifying through an interpreter…he discussed staying in fancy hotels and dining at fine restaurants to set up contacts, and outlined how drugs are smuggled into the country by boat, personal watercraft and tractor-trailer, directed from Mexico by cartel members with two-way radios.”[7]

DTOs have targeted unassuming, non-Hispanic U.S. citizens willing and able to assist with their drug operations. In January 2010, for example, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Denver, Colorado, announced that 35 people, including a retired Denver firefighter and an assistant baseball coach at Regis University, were part of a gang-affiliated network that distributed 20 kilograms of Mexican cocaine a week in the metro area.[8]

In one of the more interesting finds in recent U.S. drug raids, a federal drug trafficking investigation in May 2012 led to six arrests in the Chicago area, as well as the seizure of heroin, cash, weapons, and a Green Bay Packers Super Bowl ring reported stolen from a team executive.[9] Authorities said the individuals arrested were part of an organization with direct ties to Mexico.[10]

In another example from May 2012, a federal grand jury in Denver indicted 22 people in four states for drug trafficking and money laundering following an 18-month investigation into smugglers using “corrupt drivers” from a California trucking company to transport drugs and illegal proceeds.[11] As part of the scheme, the suspects used “corrupt drivers” from a California trucking company to move methamphetamine and money between California and Colorado.[12] The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Denver said that “in one instance, the money was hidden in a truck load of milk…[the gang] also used other means to send money back to California, including one instance where a minor had cash strapped to his body as he was being driven to California.”[13]

DTO Blood Spilled on U.S. Soil
Although many Americans are familiar with news of drug smuggling and cocaine rings, what is more surprising is the number of violent incidents committed by members of Mexican DTOs in cities and small communities hundreds, and sometimes more than a thousand, miles away from the U.S.-Mexico border.

Shelby County in northern Alabama might see a handful of murders in an entire year.[14] Yet in August 2008 several deputies stumbled upon a grisly sight: five dead men on the floor of an apartment living room. According to press reports, the bodies showed signs of torture. “Burns seared into their earlobes revealed where modified jumper cables had been clamped as an improvised electrocution device,” said the Associated Press. “Adhesive from duct tape used to bind the victims still clung to wrists and faces, from mouths to noses.”[15] The throats of the five men had also been slashed open after they were murdered.[16] The murders were the result of the loss by the victims of $500,000 belonging to the Gulf Cartel.[17] “We became a [drug trafficking] hub without knowing it,” Shelby County Sheriff Chris Curry told a reporter. “We’ve got to wake people up because we’re seeing it all over the place. It is now firmly located throughout this country.”[18]

How did this come to happen in a small community so far from the southwest border? Due to the routes of the highways in Alabama, Shelby County is a huge throughway for commercial trucks, with highways 65, 20, 59 and 459 running east to Atlanta, north to Nashville, south to New Orleans, west to Dallas. Tractor-trailers are ideal places to move illegal drugs from Mexico in hidden compartments for transport across the United States, often without the knowledge of the truck driver.

Just a few months later and 1,800 miles away, three masked and armed men stormed into six-year-old Cole Puffinburger’s home in Las Vegas. The men tied up Cole’s mother and her boyfriend, ransacked the house, and then kidnapped Cole at gunpoint. Cole was found wandering the streets four days later unharmed. The reason for the incident was because Cole’s grandfather had scammed millions of dollars from one of the men—suspected enforcers for the Gulf Cartel—and they came to collect on his debt.[19]

In just the first half of 2008, police in Gwinnett County, Georgia, had to deal with nine kidnapping cases related to the Mexican drug trade.[20] Today, drug-related kidnappings have continued in the United States, and reports of confrontations between traffickers and U.S. law enforcement officers—most often in south Texas—have increased.[21]

Difficulty in Attributing Violence to Mexican DTOs
One of the problems for law enforcement with these types of cases is how to capture the Mexican DTO connection—if it is even possible, or desirable. Most, if not all, state and local law enforcement agencies that investigate drug-related crimes do not have a specific manner of recording a crime’s connection to a Mexican DTO. Suspects may have easily identifiable gang tattoos, or—if the officer is lucky—he or she will be wearing clothing or driving a vehicle with a DTO-associated logo. There are many police departments whose officers are unaware of these logo associations, however, and a gang tattoo identification will likely only lead to speculation about a DTO affiliation. There is also no “checkbox” on a police report or field in an electronic database to be filled in with the name of a DTO that might have been provided by a drug dealing or using suspect.

It is typically difficult to ascertain a solid DTO connection because of the way these cartels operate in the United States. DTOs try to disassociate themselves as much as possible from the ultimate purveyors of their product on the street to reduce the chances of identification and prosecution. They coopt U.S.-based gangs in cities and communities across the country to buy drugs from them at wholesale prices, then turn around and sell them on the streets. Gang leaders know few details about the individuals from which they buy their wholesale drug quantities, and probably do not always know the exact DTO affiliation—although this may sometimes be useful for gang leaders so that they do not betray one particular DTO by dealing with a rival. Street dealers—most commonly the people who are busted for drug distribution—know even less than the gang leaders.[22]

Individuals who work directly for the DTOs in the United States operate in a cell structure, much like terrorist organizations.[23] Members of the Sinaloa Cartel working in Chicago will probably not know members of the same DTO working a couple of hours south in Peoria, although one cell leader might know the other. This type of organization allows a DTO to further insulate itself from U.S. law enforcement.[24]

The lack of clarity on DTO activity in the United States makes it difficult for law enforcement agencies—especially those located far from the southwest border—to prepare themselves for potential confrontations.

It is important to understand that part of this challenge is political. Elected officials and law enforcement leaders in the four southwest border states often cannot agree on the definition and existence of border violence “spillover,” and that is with good reason—a standardized definition does not exist. As a result, spillover becomes politicized; some public officials want more attention and resources directed to their part of the border, which they argue is being overrun with violent drug smugglers and illegal immigrants, while other officials tout their city’s or community’s low violent crime statistics and capability of their police and sheriff departments, intent on not losing tourists, investments, and future elections.

Despite this, most agencies in the southwest have at least a fundamental understanding—and often well beyond that—of how DTOs operate and the threats their people could pose to police officers. Move away from the border, however, and that knowledge becomes sparser—as do the implications of crime connections to Mexican DTOs, and where their local incidents fit in with the national criminal threat picture.

Having a clear understanding of DTO methods of operation and U.S. presence allows law enforcement officers to better prepare for future confrontations with drug traffickers. They can identify certain logos on clothing or markings on drug packages that can connect their activities to a Mexican DTO operating in the area. It helps them ask better questions to elicit more useful answers about the local drug trade, and possibly ties of their higher-ups to larger, national and international trafficking organizations.

As such, the more DTO connections that can be made by law enforcement at the local level across the country, the better that analysts can identify shifts and trends in national drug trafficking routes. It can also help predict future shifts based on arrests or enforcement efforts, which aids both police officers on the streets and policymakers who need to determine required resources for their departments. DTO members and their associates in the United States excel at hiding in plain sight in all parts of the country, and the better educated and prepared U.S. law enforcement officers are about them, the more effective they will be at stopping their illegal activities.

Sylvia Longmire is a medically retired Air Force captain and former Special Agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. She is also a former Senior Intelligence Analyst for the California State Fusion Center, where she focused almost exclusively on Mexican DTOs and border violence issues. Ms. Longmire is currently a consultant, correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine, and author of Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug Wars.

[1] The National Drug Intelligence Center at the U.S. Department of Justice released an annual National Drug Threat Assessment. In the 2008 assessment, it stated that “Mexican DTOs maintain drug distribution networks or supply drugs to distributors in at least 230 U.S. cities.” In the 2011 assessment, it stated that “Mexican-based TCOs were operating in more than a thousand U.S. cities during 2009 and 2010.” See National Drug Intelligence Center, U.S. Department of Justice, available at

[2]  Ibid.

[3]  “More Than 300 Alleged La Familia Cartel Members and Associates Arrested in Two-Day Nationwide Takedown,” press release, U.S. Department of Justice, October 22, 2009.

[4] Ibid.

[5]  Justin Fenton, “Mexican Cartel on Trial in Baltimore Drug Case,” Baltimore Sun, February 2, 2011.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Joey Bunch, “Firefighter, Coach Among Arrested in Alleged Cocaine Ring,” Denver Post, November 8, 2010.

[9] Annie Sweeney, “Feds Make 6 Drug Arrests, Seize Heroin, Weapons, Super Bowl Ring,” Chicago Tribune, June 4, 2012.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Keith Coffman, “Feds Say Bust Drug Ring with Ties to Mexican Drug Cartel,” Chicago Tribune, May 31, 2012.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Pauline Arrillaga, “Grisly Slayings Brings Mexican Drug War to US,” Associated Press, April 18, 2009.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17]  Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19]  Nicholas Riccardi, “Kidnapped Boy is Safe,” Los Angeles Times, October 20, 2008.

[20] Mary Lou Pickel, “‘Flood’ of Drugs from Mexico Linked to Area Abductions,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 20, 2008.

[21] Anthony Kimery, “Drug, Human Smuggling, Cartel Shootouts With Police Escalate In Rio Grande Valley,” Homeland Security Today, December 6, 2011.

[22] “2011 National Gang Threat Assessment: Emerging Trends,” National Gang Intelligence Center, U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2011.

[23] According to one report, “Some of the DTOs have adopted a more decentralized and networked model with independent cell-like structures that make it harder for law enforcement to dismantle.” For details, see June S. Beittel, “Mexico’s Drug Trafficking Organizations: Source and Scope of the Rising Violence,” Congressional Research Service, June 8, 2012, p. 31.

[24]  Ibid.

Stay Informed

Sign up to receive updates from CTC.

Sign up