MEXICO CITY - Powerful Mexican cartels have assumed control of drug distribution networks throughout the United States, sparking worry from US law enforcement and analysts that they may export the same violent methods that have ravaged Mexico for years.
US federal officials say the Mexican cartels operate in dozens of US cities, and analysts say they are moving to consolidate their control of the entire supply chain of illegal drugs.
In the Atlanta area, Mexican trafficking organizations control the lucrative methamphetamine trade, as the arrival of purer Mexican ice methamphetamine has supplanted local powder meth production, according to the US Department of Justice.
Nationwide, the Mexican cartels "are the dominant distributors of wholesale quantities of cocaine in the United States, and no other group is positioned to challenge them in the near term," according to the department's 2008 National Drug Threat Assessment.
"Their idea is to control the whole economic process of production and distribution," said Georgina Sanchez, an independent security consultant in Mexico and executive director of a public safety policy institute.
But while analysts say that the cartels' incursions into the United States could spur more secondary crimes, such as kidnapping, most believe that the bloody battles for territory will continue to be fought in Mexico and not in the United States.
While in some areas of the United States the cartels have entered into partnerships with local gangs, in others they have directly assumed control of local drug distribution, analysts say.
The Zetas, former Mexican soldiers who have become the armed wing of the Gulf Cartel, have been linked to killings along the Texas side of the border and as far north as Dallas, according to court records and press accounts. The Sinaloa Cartel has been linked to the local Houston drug trade. And in Phoenix, suspected Mexican traffickers dressed as the Phoenix Police SWAT team recently attacked a home with high caliber weapons.
"The violence in [American] cities has a direct cause and effect related to what is taking place in Mexico," said Fred Burton, vice president for counterterrorism at Stratfor, an Austin-based private intelligence company.
"The farther north you go from the border, the less that is understood," said Burton, who is a member of the Texas Border Security Council, which focuses on homeland security and economic development along the Texas-Mexico border.
The biggest worry for local law enforcement groups is that the cartels will bring with them violent methods honed during furious cartel wars in Mexico that have left about 5,000 dead since 2006. In recent years, Mexican drug violence has reached new heights, with beheadings, videotaped executions broadcast on the Internet, and the targeting of top Mexican officials.
Drug violence associated with the cartels, although on a vastly smaller scale, has begun to emerge in the Atlanta area. Gwinnett County has seen about nine drug-related kidnappings this year, including a man who was bound and chained in a basement in the town of Lilburn.
US Attorney David Nahmias said Gwinnett has become a center of Mexican drug cartel activity and the Atlanta area is considered especially enticing to the cartels because of its location as distribution hub for the highly profitable East Coast market.
Jack Killorin, head of the federal Atlanta High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force, said most of the violence related to the cartels remains contained within the organizations and isn't affecting the larger community.
"We're not seeing violence across the cartels," he said. "They're just not in conflict. Some people would say that at this end of the distribution chain they're more interested in cooperating and making money than in conflict. Others would say there's plenty to go around so there's no need for conflict."
In December, local and federal agencies targeted two Mexican trafficking organizations, seizing 111 kilos of cocaine, 17 pounds of methamphetamine, and as much as $10 million in cash. Officials said the groups used Atlanta as the distribution point for drugs smuggled from Mexico and for cash waiting to be smuggled back to Mexico.
Killorin said the two groups were affiliated with the Federation (also known as the Sinaloa Cartel), one of the two dominant Mexican drug cartels. Mexican officials have identified seven major drug cartels.
Analysts fear that the cartels will bring not just drug violence, but peripheral cash-generating crime like kidnapping, extortion, and protection rackets - problems that are all too common in Mexico.
Burton said there has been a spike in kidnappings along the Texas border. "We don't know how many have been kidnapped, but guesstimates by local law enforcement puts abductions in border towns at four to eight a week," he said. "They are snatched in the US and taken to Mexico."
Sanchez said kidnapping in the United States could be particularly attractive to the cartels because they may be able to demand more money than they do in Mexico.
"The US will begin to see a little of the same conflict that is happening in Mexico," Sanchez said. "If [the cartels] already have methods, and ways of diversifying into other crimes, it's normal that they won't stop at the border."
But analysts say it is unlikely the United States will see the type of large-scale drug wars that have paralyzed various Mexican cities and forced President Felipe Calderon to send about 25,000 federal troops to confront the cartels.