Modern gang members, while continuing their stereotypical fights for territorial control or boasting gang allegiance through colors, tattoos, and symbols, also adapt to their environment for survivability. One aspect of this adaptation is making money through criminal ventures; more specifically, their ability to create alliances with other criminal enterprises for the purpose of financial gain that benefits the gang and its members. Accordingly, American gang alliances with Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations (MDTOs) is a logical step for gangs in establishing and maintaining control over the street level sales of illegal drugs in many U.S. cities.

This article provides background on the history of modern drug trafficking in the United States, how MDTOs leverage U.S. gangs for narcotics distribution and enforcement purposes, and identifies the linkages between MDTOs and U.S. gangs in Chart 1 (this chart is only available in the PDF version of the CTC Sentinel).

Background on Modern Drug Trafficking
During the 1980s, Miami was the epicenter of drug trafficking. Colombian traffickers sold narcotics and laundered money in real estate and expensive cars, opening U.S. bank accounts to wire money back to Colombia. During this time, Colombians were the primary traffickers of cocaine into the United States, mostly through Florida, and sold their supplies to U.S.-based criminal organizations in wholesale, and also to U.S.-based Colombian sellers. By the end of the 1980s and through the 1990s and 2000s, however, new laws and greater federal enforcement operations targeted the traffickers; this caused trafficking routes to expand in an effort to thwart law enforcement intervention. This was accomplished by the increased participation of additional trafficking organizations, such as the Dominicans, Jamaicans, and even Mexican traffickers, who joined the Colombians. The Colombians, while still involved in trafficking drugs into the United States, slowly began to refocus their operations more on production, letting transportation be the concern of other trafficking groups.

As a result, the Mexican cartels, some of which had been in business dating back to the Prohibition Era in the United States, took on more responsibility in trafficking—not just moving cocaine for the Colombians, but rather actually buying the cocaine, then selling it directly into U.S. markets and reaping the profits. As drug proceeds significantly increased for Mexican cartels, so did the desire to expand operations to increase profits, and expansion usually meant encroachment into rival cartel territory. The result has been an estimated 47,000 dead in Mexico from 2006 to 2011,[1] as the cartels continue to fight the Mexican authorities and each other for control of the lucrative drug smuggling routes into the United States.

Cooperation with U.S. Gangs
Today, while illegal drugs are smuggled into the United States in every conceivable way, the preponderance of cocaine is shipped from the southwest border.[2] U.S. gangs operating along the southwest border appear to have been the first gangs to enhance their relationship with MDTOs; however, there has always been some level of a relationship between the southwest border criminal enterprises. Cross-border familial ties and knowledge of criminal activities occurring in one’s territory are aspects that aided southwest border gangs in establishing working relationships with MDTOs.

Modern U.S. gang expansion into trafficking operations was slow and integral. Prior to 2006, the gangs along the southwest border would buy their drugs from the traffickers for street-level sales. Then, gangs aided traffickers by providing protection for drug shipments into the United States. Gangs also took on a more logistical support role for the traffickers once the shipment entered the United States. Gangs would not only protect drug warehouses, but also began protecting shipments across the border, bulk money shipments back into Mexico, as well as cars and weapons. Eventually, gangs would also help MDTOs conduct enforcement operations aimed at traffickers in the United States who owed money, as well as other rival MDTOs attempting to encroach into claimed territory. Currently, many national-level U.S. gangs have established relationships with MDTOs to bypass the so-called “middle man”[3] and purchase larger quantities of drugs, and disperse them to their markets directly. A February 2010 National Drug Intelligence Center Assessment of drug trafficking by gangs estimated that gangs’ wholesale purchase of drugs, that were subsequently divided and shipped to the gang’s controlled territory, cut the price of cocaine by a third—essentially increasing the gang’s drug trafficking profit more than 30%. This also allows gangs to undercut competitive dealers and monopolize and expand their market share of street-level drug sales.[4]

The working relationship between gangs and MDTOs became more transparent over the past five years as news of horrific violence poured out of Mexico. One shocking example was the U.S. Consulate murders in Ciudad Juarez, where Barrio Azteca members, a U.S. prison gang working directly with the Vincente Carrillo-Fuentes Cartel (Juarez Cartel), murdered a U.S. Consulate employee and her husband on March 13, 2010.[5]

MDTOs were in search of U.S.-based partners who would not cooperate with law enforcement. Accordingly, the loyalty and discipline attributes of gangs made them ideal partners. Theoretically, the loyalty and discipline of U.S. gangs would hinder cooperation with law enforcement, and thus better protect the drug trafficking operation. The success of their working relationship is, in part, because gangs and Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs) are like-minded organizations. As criminal enterprises, loyalty, discipline, and territoriality are cornerstone philosophies on how gangs and MDTOs manage their respective organizations. This is because criminal enterprises must function in a covert capacity if they wish to survive law enforcement intervention and rival criminal takeover. Without loyalty to the organization, whether a gang or a DTO, rivals and law enforcement could easily infiltrate and dismantle the organization from the inside. Discipline is paramount to keep members inline so that their actions do not disrupt the organization or its operations. Controlling and expanding one’s territory is also important to the survivability of the organization as it protects the economic area of operation from competitors.

Aside from possible personality conflicts that could arise, there is no apparent reason for either group to end their mutually beneficial relationship. With U.S. gangs able to increase their profit by taking over wholesale distribution that in many instances were operated by domestic drug trafficking networks, and MDTOs gaining increased reliance on their U.S.-based partners, criminal enterprises on both sides of the border benefit from their shared cooperation. As such, the symbiotic relationship of gangs and MDTOs stands to only strengthen over the foreseeable future, giving U.S. gangs greater access to wealth through their increased control of wholesale and street-level sale of illegal drugs in the United States.

Mark Schmidt, a former U.S. Army Counterintelligence Agent, received his Bachelors of Arts in Government and Politics, focusing on Comparative and International Studies from George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Mr. Schmidt has been an Intelligence Analyst with the Federal Bureau of Investigation for 11 years, and has worked counterterrorism, counterintelligence, Eurasian organized crime, Middle Eastern criminal enterprises and criminal street gang investigations. He has been with the National Gang Intelligence Center since January 2009.

[1] Randal Archibold, “Mexico’s Drug War Bloodies Areas Thought Safe,” New York Times, January 18, 2012.

[2]“National Drug Threat Assessment 2010,” National Drug Intelligence Center, U.S. Department of Justice, February 2010.

[3] In this context, the “middle man,” or “men,” refers to drug trafficking criminal enterprises that solely operated inside the United States, but purchased large quantities of drugs from MDTOs, which they resold to gangs and other street-level drug salesmen across the United States.

[4] “National Drug Threat Assessment 2010.”

[5] Daniel Borunda and Adriana M. Chavez, “Federal Case Linked to Consulate Deaths Yields Racketeering Pleas,” El Paso Times, September 23, 2011.

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