Pubdate: Mon, 09 Jun 2008
Source: El Paso Times (TX)
Copyright: 2008 El Paso Times
Author: Chris Roberts


Cartels Driven By Desire For Big Payoff

When she was 10 years old, Patricia Montejano sat in a  truck outside
a stash house in Kansas waiting for a  close relative. Although she
didn't know exactly what  was going on, she could sense the tension in
the air.

She was in the company of a drug trafficker who was  dropping a load
of marijuana.

Montejano said she and her sisters always went along  for the ride
from JuA!rez to points throughout the  United States because law
enforcement officials were  less likely to suspect an adult with children.

"It was very dangerous," said Montejano, now 26. "Things would clear
up, but then ... would just go back and do it again."

Montejano was unknowingly part of a network of Mexican  drug cartels
that officials say is becoming a powerful  supplier of illegal drugs
in the United States.

And marijuana is the lynchpin, accounting for more than  $8.5 billion
in revenue for Mexican drug trafficking  organizations in 2005,
according to the most recent  figures available from the Bush
administration's Office  of National Drug Control Policy.

Next in line, are cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin.  Together, they
account for slightly more than $5.3  billion each year.

Mexican officials point out that the demand for drugs  in the U.S. is
driving cartel activity in most cases.  And U.S. officials are talking
tough about addicts and  recreational users who spend their money on
the illegal  drugs.

"The largest single source of their revenue is  marijuana," said John
P. Walters, Office of National  Drug Control Policy director. "These
killers (cartel  bosses) pay assassins with dollars from marijuana
users  in the United States and it needs to stop.

"It's not a victimless activity. It's blood money. And  every time
somebody buys a joint, they need to remember  they're contributing to
the assassination and murder in  Mexico."

Meanwhile, U.S. officials are focused on disrupting  cartel

Walters and others tout data showing recent decreases  in the use of
methamphetamine, cocaine and, among  teens, marijuana. They, in part,
attribute those trends  to drug seizures and restrictions on the
chemicals used  to manufacture methamphetamine.

In fiscal year 2008, the nation will spend $3.2 billion  on drug
interdiction and the administration has  requested an increase to $3.8
billion for fiscal 2009.  President Bush also has asked Congress to
approve $1.4  billion, most of it for Mexico, to bolster that
nation's war on drugs.

"We have (had) unprecedented levels of success this  year with respect
to interdiction," said Michael Braun,  Drug Enforcement Administration
chief of operations.  "Much of that success should go to Mexico
President  CalderA3n and his administration's strategy of taking  on
these very vicious and ruthless cartels  nose-to-nose, head-to-head
and not backing down."

Cartels move north

The growing violence in JuA!rez is one indication of  the huge payoff
waiting for the cartel that can control  this portion of the Southwest
border. Mexican cartels  are establishing dominance in nearly every
aspect of  the nation's illegal drug trade, according to a recent
U.S. Department of Justice report.

"Mexican (drug trafficking organizations) -- the  principal smugglers
and distributors of illicit drugs  in the United States -- are
exerting more control over  illicit drug trafficking throughout the
nation,"  according to the National Drug Threat Assessment --  2008,
released late last year.

The assessment also states that Colombian organizations  are relying
more on Mexican cartels to smuggle South  American heroin into the
U.S., "enabling Mexican  (organizations) to control the flow of both
Mexican  and, increasingly, South American heroin into U.S. drug  markets."

But the Mexican cartels are not satisfied simply moving  someone
else's product.

Expanded opium poppy cultivation and decreased  eradication in Mexico
also could increase the Mexican  cartels' profile in heroin sales, the
report states,  adding that increasing purity of Mexican heroin might
create a greater demand for the product.

The report also states that, despite success against  the Colombian
cartels, cocaine production is expected  to remain stable and that
Mexican cartels will be the  "dominant distributors," with most of it
flowing in  through Texas.

Another opportunity for the Mexican cartels has been  created by the
success of law enforcement efforts to  shut down methamphetamine labs
in the U.S. The Mexican  cartels have been setting up labs in northern
Mexico,  according to the assessment, and are now "the primary  source
of methamphetamine in U.S. drug markets."

Mexican cartels, and to a lesser degree Asian cartels,  increasingly
are sending members to grow marijuana in  the United States, sometimes
setting booby traps and  posting armed guards on public lands.

As marijuana eradication efforts in the U.S. have  increased, the
cartels have turned to equipping  residential homes with hydroponics
and special lighting  systems to grow marijuana. The indoor pot also
is  typically more potent because of the ability to control  growing

However, "most of the marijuana available in the United  States is
lower-potency, commercial-grade marijuana  produced in Mexico," the
report states.

The cartels typically employ "low-level couriers" to  smuggle cocaine,
marijuana, methamphetamine and heroin  on overland routes across the
Southwest border, the  report states.

As the cartels evolve, so do the counter-drug agencies'

"We're always changing our strategies," Braun said.  "And we've
learned over the years that when we change  our strategies, we cause
traffickers to change their  behavior. Every time we cause them to
change their  behavior, they become more vulnerable and our successes
begin to rise."

An alternate solution proposed by some critics of the  drug war is to
legalize drugs -- marijuana in  particular. They say the demand for
the illegal supply  would drop dramatically. The drug could be
regulated to  keep it out of the hands of youth, they say, and taxed
to fund prevention and treatment.

The country's top counter-drug officials sneer at the

"It's a silly argument put forth by people who have a  hidden agenda
to legalize drugs," said Rafael Lemaitre,  a spokesman for the Office
of National Drug Control  Policy in Washington, D.C. "It's not a
responsible  health policy to make marijuana more available in  society."

Seeking help

After three or four years of transporting drugs for the  cartels,
Montejano said her relative was busted in a  sting operation and
sentenced to prison. After being  released, the person sought help and
has been clean for  six years, Montejano said.

But Montejano descended into drug and alcohol  addiction. Although her
main problem was alcohol, she  says she used cocaine to increase her
stamina during  drinking binges.

As long as she had a dealer, getting the drug was easy,  she said.
When the dealer disappeared she would go  searching for a new connection.

Then, after three drunk-driving convictions, the loss  of her license,
and the threat of a jail sentence,  which would have separated her
from her daughter, she  was given an option -- drug court, which
requires  treatment.

Administration officials point to some 2,000 drug  courts for
nonviolent offenders as a way to reduce  demand. Funding random
drug-testing programs at high  schools is another administration goal.

The tab -- $3.5 billion a year -- about equals the  money spent on
interdiction, officials said.

"We're treating more people (and) we're seeing declines  in drug use,
which is all to the good, and we want to  accelerate those," Walters
said. "We get more progress  by reducing supply and demand together."

However, there is a "treatment gap," Lemaitre said,  which means more
people are seeking treatment than can  be accommodated in the programs.

Although treatment is not a quick fix, drug courts  provide a way for
some offenders to stay out of jail.  That means they can become, or
remain, gainfully  employed.

Montejano entered drug court in 2004. At first, she  said, she was
rebellious and refused to comply with the  program's rules. When she
violated the rules, she went  to jail for a day or two. And, each
time, she had to  begin the 18-month program over.

Clean for a year and three months, she now counsels  people who are
facing foreclosure on their homes and  plans to become a social worker
focusing on drug and  alcohol counseling.

Montejano said she agrees with Walters' contention that  people
support cartels by buying illegal drugs. But her  case might shine a
light on one way to reduce demand in  the U.S. -- expanding treatment
for addictive behavior.

"I want to help exactly the way I was helped,"  Montejano said.
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