San Diego Union-Tribune

March 30, 2001

Drug cartels keep illicit machine humming along, officials say

By Joe Cantlupe
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON -- Mexico's drug cartels are becoming more innovative by buying everything from corrupt U.S. law-enforcement officials to trucking companies, officials told Congress yesterday.

As a result, the cartels, which include the Arellano Felix organization of Tijuana, continue to maintain a stranglehold on drug trafficking across the Southwest border, according to Donnie Marshall, administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

"The power and influence of these organizations is pervasive and continues to expand to new markets across the United States," Marshall told the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on crime.

For the most part, Marshall and other law-enforcement officials portrayed a hectic status quo in combating drug-trafficking along the border, with occasional successes, but no large-scale victory over cartels.

A Texas federal judge also urged the panel to recommend more judges for border courts, including the Southern District of California in San Diego, which he said have been overwhelmed with increasing drug and immigration caseloads.

Officials said more than three-fifths of the narcotics that flow into the United States come across the Southwest border -- a figure that has remained constant in recent years.

Marshall said a major law-enforcement effort targets the Mexican cartels, which team with Colombian organizations to deliver an efficient and ruthless brand of drug trafficking.

Recently, the cartels seized on weaknesses in the law-enforcement system and the North American Free Trade Agreement, according to Michael Scott, chief of the Texas Department of Public Safety's
criminal law enforcement division.

"Mexican drug trafficking organizations have exploited our collective inability to inspect vehicles and pedestrians entering this country," Scott said. "They have purchased trucking companies and maquiladoras in Mexico in an effort to promulgate the illegal industry."

Although cartels have routinely corrupted Mexican officials over the years, "Corruption has not stopped at the border," Scott said.

"Whether it is paying off a customs inspector to pass a vehicle through without an inspection or paying a local sheriff's deputy to help get a load of drugs through the Border Patrol checkpoint, everyone agrees that the problem of corruption in this country is bad and only getting worse," the Texas official said.

Marshall said U.S. officials are attacking drug-cartel "cells" based in major U.S. cities in hopes of toppling the distribution rings responsible for most of the cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana shipped into this country.

Still, key leaders of the cartels in Mexico have avoided arrest or capture, Marshall said.

The DEA official said he anticipates that U.S. officials can work closely with Mexico's new president, Vicente Fox, who has vowed to crack down on corruption and the cartels in his country.

Scott said, "Anyone who has seen the recent movie `Traffic' could be easily convinced that our drug enforcement efforts along the border are failing."

But he added that authorities have "not admitted defeat."