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'Nobody has seen a cartel like this': DOJ targets Mexico's most powerful drug organization

In this Dec. 2, 2015 photo, Guerrero State Police patrol in Iguala, Mexico. Authorities disbanded the local police force that allegedly turned 43 students over to the Guerreros Unidos drug cartel, which authorities say was closely allied with former Iguala Mayor Jose Luis Abarca Velazquez. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has designated Mexican drug cartels as the "greatest criminal drug threat to the United States" for the past four years. This week, the Justice Department announced it was narrowing in on a relatively new network that has surpassed other transnational criminal organizations in its power and reach into the United States.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions formally announced the creation of a multi-agency task force to target five transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) deemed the greatest threats to U.S. safety and prosperity. The groups include MS-13, the Sinaloa Cartel, Clan del Golfo, Lebanese Hezbollah and Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion, or CJNG.

"Every day, these cartels are taking advantage of our porous Southern border to move and push their illegal drugs for large profits, expanding suffering and death along the way," Sessions said at a Tuesday press conference. "This is not business as usual," he continued. "We are hitting them from all sides and with every weapon we have."

According to the Treasury Department, CJNG is "Mexico's most powerful drug cartel," and the latest target of a whole of government crackdown. On Tuesday, the Justice Department publicly unveiled 15 indictments against 45 of the group's leaders, financiers, transporters, and drug sources. In connection with the criminal charges, the Justice Department said it will continue working with Mexican authorities to find, detain and extradite the individuals, including the group's leader Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, aka "El Mencho."

The government is offering a $10 million reward for information leading to El Mencho's arrest, one of the highest rewards on any individual. Erick Valencia Salazar, aka "El 85," a founding member of the cartel and a "prolific, violent cocaine trafficker" has a $5 million reward associated with his arrest.

The Treasury and State Departments are also involved in disrupting the group, which operates in 22 Mexican states (more than half the country) and has an active global network in the UnitedStates, Latin America, Africa, Europe and Asia. In the past three years, Treasury has sanctioned 23 individuals and 40 entities integral to CJNG's operations.

What was announced this week will be critical for dismantling some of the largest and most dangerous drug cartels, but it is only a first step, according to experts.

"Its a very rough, small beginning," said Todd Bensman, a national security expert at the Center for Immigration Studies and former intelligence analyst with the Texas Department of Public Safety. "They've got a long way to go with this cartel."

A relative newcomer, CJNG emerged less than a decade ago out of the Sinaloa Cartel, often described as Mexico's largest drug cartel. By 2016, the Treasury Department described the Jalisco cartel as one of the world’s "most prolific and violent drug trafficking organizations."

Their rapid growth has been attributed, in part, to their strategic control of drug trafficking routes on the U.S. southwest border, areas of the northwest border, near Vancouver, Canada and their control of sea routes in the Atlantic and Pacific.

The Trump administration's focus on the group represents "a strategic shift" in how the United States and Mexico will work to target and take down international criminal organizations.

"That will probably be a permanent feature for the next decade. The reason is, CJNG is like no other cartel the world has ever seen before in terms of its reach, its financial, military and organizational power," Bensman said. "Nobody has seen a cartel like this."

Dominating key ports on the Pacific and Gulf Coasts, CJNG has consolidated substantial control of the global drug supply chain, including controlling the flow of chemical precursors from Asia and other parts of Latin America essential to the production of methamphetamine, heroin and synthetic opioids.

Every month, CJNG is responsible for trafficking approximately five tons of cocaine and five tons of methamphetamine into the United States every month, according to the Justice Department. They also operate more than 100 meth labs in Mexico. Based on the average street value, those volumes could net upwards of $8.1 billion for cocaine and $4.6 billion for crystal meth each year.

The group has been integral to the growing methamphetamine epidemic affecting U.S. communities. CJNG's production and distribution network has fueled a steep decline in the price of meth in the U.S. market and a more than doubling of meth-related overdose deaths since 2013.

The group's military capabilities were highlighted when the group used a rocket-propelled grenade launcher to down a military helicopter in 2015, and then in 2016 when they shot down a police helicopter.

Taking down the network will require a stepwise approach, close coordination with Mexican authorities and a careful eye on the evolution of the group, which some analysts believe may be splintering off into allied criminal syndicates.

John Walters of the Hudson Insitute, served as head of the White House Office on Drug Control Policy, during the George W. Bush administration. "The key goal is, you're trying to rip down networks. You have to take out a big enough chunk so they can't reproduce or maintain operations," he explained.

The Justice Department unsealing charges against 45 CJNG leaders is substantial, as is the Treasury Department systematically cutting off 23 individuals and 40 cartel-related businesses from accessing the U.S. financial system. The next step is to work with Mexico and other international partners on arrests and extradition of individuals so their evidence can be used against the network.

"Then you need to take out the next layer and the next layer. There's an operational tempo issue here to break this thing down," Walters explained. "It takes time."

In recent years, Mexican authorities have arrested a handful of individuals now being targeted by the Justice Department. Some have been freed, like Erick Valencia Salazar, who was arrested in 2012 but released in 2017 due to alleged "irregularities in his prosecution." Others await extradition, like Abigael Gonzalez Valencia, head of CJNG's money-laundering arm, "Cuinis." Salazar was arrested in June 2015 and is currently in custody at a maximum security prison in Mexico awaiting extradition to the United States.

The current climate of drug addiction and epidemic levels of drug overdose deaths in the United States has helped strengthen the transnational criminal organizations. The rise in U.S. opioid overdose deaths has been directly linked to expanded control of the heroin and opioids market by Mexican criminal syndicates.

The expansion of these drug cartels has turned Mexico into the primary foreign source for much of the heroin, methamphetamine consumed in the United States, and increasingly fentanyl, a potent and deadly synthetic opioid. In its 2017 drug threat assessment, DEA warned, "No other criminal organization currently possesses a logistical infrastructure at the national level that can rival Mexican TCO dominance over the U.S. drug trade."

The power and reach of the Mexican drug cartels go beyond that of the Medellín and Cali Cartels, the top Colombia-based criminal organizations of the 1970s through the 1990s, Walters argued. "In terms of the movement of opioids, heroin, fentanyl, cocaine and methamphetamine, the Mexican organizations are more concentrated," he said. "They're more extensive. They're more dangerous and they're much more diffuse in the United States."

In the past, the United States and Mexico have worked together to mitigate the mutual threat of the cartels. Much of that has been coordinated through the Mérida Initiative, a bilateral partnership launched in 2007. Mérida was set up to help Mexico disrupt organized criminal groups, improve the rule of law, modernize the border and improve internal security.

The United States has provided Mexico with more than $1.6 billion since it was launched with questionable results on both sides of the border. Critics of the program in Mexico argue the program has militarized public security and fueled violence throughout the states. Since coming into office, the Trump administration has cut the program by roughly 40 percent.

Inevitably, the United States and Mexico will have to find the right mechanism to take down the drug cartels, but it is hard to tell how the Trump administration will manage the task with the incoming Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, or AMLO. AMLO has stood firmly against President Trump's border wall and has promised to end the militarization of Mexico's long-running drug war.

This story was updated October 24, 2018.

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