Pubdate: Wed, 30 Dec 2020
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2020 The New York Times Company
Author: Steve Fisher and Kirk Semple


CULIACAN, Mexico - Like a lot of businesses, the Sinaloa Cartel was
knocked back on its heels as the coronavirus swept the globe and
travel ground to a near halt.

Government measures to contain the virus had fouled up its operations,
interrupting the supply of chemicals for manufacturing synthetic drugs
like fentanyl and methamphetamine and cutting off trafficking routes
across international borders.

But the cartel is not just any business. It established itself as one
of the world's most powerful drug trafficking groups with a trademark
mix of business acumen, ingenuity and lawlessness.

And so while many legitimate industries remain staggered by the
pandemic, the cartel has quickly adapted, as have other organizations
that dominate trafficking throughout the Americas, the source of
nearly all of the world's cocaine and most of the heroin consumed in
the United States.

"The cartels have long demonstrated their resiliency," said Scott
Brown, the head of the Homeland Security Investigations office in
Arizona. "They are going to continue to find new and innovative ways
to try to move their product."

The drug trafficking organizations have slashed payrolls and devised
workarounds to traffic drugs and get them into the hands of consumers,
according to interviews with sources close to the Sinaloa Cartel, law
enforcement officials in the United States and Latin America and
security analysts.

During the year, some traffickers have increasingly relied on newer
tools like drones and cryptocurrency and on creative uses of older
approaches like underground tunnels and sea routes.

American officials have also detected a growing emphasis on the
recruitment of impoverished or drug-addicted Americans to smuggle
drugs in their body cavities.

The changes, sources said, have allowed the Sinaloa Cartel and the
region's other major drug trafficking groups to rebound quickly even
as the pandemic continues to devastate economies.

The nimbleness of the trafficking groups has forced the authorities
throughout the region to adjust their tactics accordingly, even as
some law enforcement agencies in Latin America and elsewhere have been
stretched thin by pandemic-related duties, which have drawn resources
that would otherwise have been devoted to fighting drug

Even before the pandemic, officials said, the cat-and-mouse contest
between drug traffickers and law enforcement agents was anything but

"It's fluid," said Matthew Donahue, deputy chief of operations for the
Drug Enforcement Administration. "You can't have one answer and live
by it. It could change tomorrow."

As the first wave of the pandemic swept from continent to continent in
the late winter and early spring, government measures to respond to
the emergency caused disruptions throughout the drug trade.

In the Americas, the shutdowns hit drug traffickers hard, in some
places bringing operations to a near halt.

"When it first hit," Mr. Donahue said of the pandemic, "it kind of put
everything at a standstill."

Facing travel restrictions, operatives from Mexican trafficking
organizations had trouble getting to Central America to coordinate
maritime shipments of drugs. As operations slowed, some criminal
groups were forced to stockpile their product in Latin America, Mr.
Donahue said.

The slowdown was felt throughout the sprawling networks of the Sinaloa
Cartel, from the coca fields of South America to drug-packing
facilities in Mexico and all along its international trafficking
routes, said a bookkeeper for the organization who monitors its drug
shipments throughout the region.

Like many legal businesses trying to counter the impacts of the
pandemic, the group reorganized, furloughing many low-level employees,
including truck drivers, warehouse workers and security personnel,
said the bookkeeper and two other cartel associates in interviews. The
sources requested anonymity because they were speaking without
authorization, and were afraid for their safety.

When the flow of drugs regained momentum, the transportation hurdles
resulted in a sharp drop in the frequency of shipments, with cocaine
from the Andean countries of South America arriving in Mexico once
every two weeks, instead of a few times a week, as had been the case
before the pandemic, Sinaloa Cartel associates and a Mexican Navy
official said.

The slowdown caused the wholesale price of cocaine in Mexico to
double, the cartel bookkeeper said in an interview in Culiacan, a city
in northwestern Mexico where the organization is based.

Disruptions to the drug trade were particularly notable across the
southwest border of the United States.

The vast majority of illegal drugs that enter the United States from
Mexico arrive through legal ports of entry along that border - hidden
in passenger cars and commercial vehicles or smuggled by travelers
arriving on foot, often masquerading as tourists or as day trippers on
a shopping expedition.

But pandemic-related limits imposed by the Trump administration on all
"nonessential travel" have meant that fewer passenger cars and
non-American pedestrians pass through the ports of entry, which has
increased the exposure of smugglers.

"Having less traffic coming through the checkpoints, then it would
make sense that agents have more time to focus on what's going on at
the checkpoints," said John R. Modlin, interim chief patrol agent for
the U.S. Border Patrol's Tucson Sector.

The drug cartels quickly adjusted to the evolving landscape.

Amid the severe reduction in air travel and the hindrances to land
border crossings, drug traffickers in Latin America have been relying
more on sea routes, including using more semi-submersible vessels and
go-fast boats, which are low-profile craft outfitted with high-powered
outboard motors, according to reports from the Colombian Navy as well
as American and Mexican law enforcement officials and Sinaloa Cartel

The trafficking groups have also increasingly hidden drugs among legal
merchandise packed in shipping containers and transported on
freighters, particularly on routes connecting South America with
Mexico and Latin America with Europe, according to American, Mexican
and Colombian officials.

In another apparent shift in methodology, officials and analysts said,
some traffickers have been sending fewer loads, though in larger
amounts than in the past - perhaps as much a strategy to reduce risk
as a reflection of more limited transportation options.

Along the southwest border of the United States this year, the drug
trafficking organizations appear to have made greater use of tunnels
to smuggle their goods from Mexico, sometimes reactivating dormant
ones, according to Mr. Donahue of the D.E.A., and to associates of the
Sinaloa Cartel.

The Sinaloa Cartel bookkeeper estimated that the organization's use of
tunnels had increased by about 40 percent during the pandemic.

Traffickers, in some places, have also increased their use of drones
to get drugs over the border, American officials said.

"We are detecting drone smuggling attempts and interrupting drone
smuggling attempts with regularity, and that certainly wasn't the case
a year ago," said Mr. Brown, special agent in charge for the Homeland
Security Investigations office in Arizona. "Across the southwest
border, rare is the day that there isn't a drone smuggling attempt."

"And I'm sure we're not picking up on all of them," he

While traffickers have also continued to try to push drugs through
ports of entry, the American authorities have detected at least one
particularly dramatic shift in tactics in the profile of smugglers
caught at those border crossings.

Before the pandemic, the cartels would frequently hire foreign-born
smugglers who would cross the border from Mexico into the United
States under the pretense of tourism or a shopping trip.

But because the pandemic-related border restrictions have blocked
entry to many foreign visitors, the trafficking groups have been
recruiting a greater number of American citizens and Green Card
holders, who are not bound by the restrictions, to smuggle drugs into
the United States, American officials said. These smugglers are most
often discovered with the narcotics hidden inside their bodies,
officials said.

Guadalupe Ramirez Jr., director of field operations for Customs and
Border Protection in Arizona, recalled that when he was director of
the ports of entry in Nogales from 2009 to 2016, "internal carriers,"
as such smugglers are known by border officials, were rare.

"Now it seems like almost on a daily basis we're getting internal
carriers," and most are American citizens or permanent residents, Mr.
Ramirez said.

The challenges of getting drugs into the United States also appears to
have spurred the development of clandestine laboratories in the United
States for the production of synthetic drugs, said Celina Realuyo,
professor at the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense
Studies at the National Defense University in Washington.

And law enforcement agencies around the world have also detected an
acceleration in the use of cryptocurrency and the so-called dark web
for drug transactions and money laundering during the pandemic, she

"They're adjusting," Ms. Realuyo said of the drug trafficking groups.
"They already had kind of a wherewithal, and what they're doing is
they're just adapting quicker to their context."