The road to Cleveland: Cartels seek to take control of Northeast Ohio’s drug trade through price and availability


CLEVELAND, Ohio — For years, Mexico’s two most powerful cartels have worked to control the illicit drug trade in northeast Ohio through price and availability.

They use low-level couriers to transport large quantities of cocaine, fentanyl and methamphetamine here. They also use financial conduits to launder profits and local distributors to distribute their products, records and interviews.

In many ways, they have cornered the market on the region’s narcotics underbelly supply chain. What was once diverse has apparently become more focused. And the tragedy is playing out daily: overdose deaths in the region have increased, a development brought about by cheaper and more potent drugs. Drug-related violence has also increased. Dependencies have also increased, as have payroll taxes.

The Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels have brought a level of sophistication to trade flows and routes in place since Prohibition, when smugglers smuggled alcohol north, authorities say.

“These cartels are trying to take over every region of the United States, every city, every county, every village,” said Mike Vigil, retired head of international operations for the US Drug Enforcement Administration and who has worked as an undercover officer and an undercover officer. supervisor in Mexico.

The cartels’ fight for control has offered new fodder for Republican candidates from Ohio running for the U.S. Senate, who have raced to echo former President Trump’s platform and demand the need for a completed wall on the Mexican border. This, they say, will keep the drugs out.

For some, the candidates have a valid concern: Over the past three years, the DEA and FBI have seized large shipments of drugs in northeast Ohio that were tied to Mexico’s most powerful cartels.

But some drug experts wonder if a border wall will stem the flow to the United States. The reason, they say, is that the vast majority of major shipments do not transit near the wall, but through legal ports of entry, many of which are so overwhelmed with traffic that authorities find it difficult to keep up.

“Cartels are smart enough to realize that you can’t control every vehicle,” Vigil said. “They don’t go to entry points that [have little traffic]. They go to the busiest.

Bryce Pardo, associate director of Rand Corp.’s Drug Policy Research Center, said few traffickers try to enter through other means.

“Yes, you might see a person with a big package in the middle of the desert, but the majority of [drugs] enter the United States through ports of entry,” Pardo said.

Authorities said the Sinaloa Cartel, one of the oldest and most violent rings in the world, has long held a stronghold in the Midwest, including Ohio and Michigan. He used Chicago as a distribution hub, according to law enforcement.

The Jalisco Cartel, Sinaloa’s main rival, has been linked to the March arrests of three men accused of bringing more than 1,100 pounds of cocaine to Cleveland and storing it in a warehouse on Carnegie Avenue. The ring returned more than $13 million in revenue to Mexico, according to prosecutors and court records.

In July 2020, the DEA arrested a money launderer and charged her with collecting nearly $200,000 worth of drug proceeds in Cleveland and shipping them to a Mexican bank. Federal records show an informant believed the conduit had ties to the Jalisco Cartel.

The foundations of power

The forces poisoning Cleveland and the region thrive thousands of miles away. Their power bases, once located on the west coast of Mexico, have spread to all 31 states of the country and Mexico City.

Federal DEA reports show Sinaloa is the most established cartel in Mexico, exporting cocaine, methamphetamine, fentanyl, heroin and marijuana to the United States through its control of northern regions -western Mexico.

The Congressional Research Service, which provides analysis to lawmakers, said the cartel is often considered “the most powerful drug trafficking syndicate in the Western Hemisphere.”

His position grew with Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who led the cartel’s growth. A federal jury found him guilty in New York of running a criminal enterprise and he was sentenced to life in prison in 2019.

Its main competitor, the Jalisco New Generation, became one of the fastest growing cartels in Mexico, according to DEA reports, as it manufactured and distributed methamphetamine and fentanyl and exported cocaine and heroin. Formerly known as Los Mata Zetas, it used violent attacks on police and rivals in Mexico to expand.

“These [cartels] maintain drug distribution cells in cities across the United States that either report directly to Mexican leaders or report indirectly through intermediaries,” states a 2020 DEA report on threat assessments.

“Cartels dominate the drug trade that influences the U.S. market, with most cartels having a polydrug market approach that allows for maximum flexibility and resilience in their operations.”

Roads to Cleveland

For years, the cartels have used the same routes from Mexico to Cleveland for most of the drugs they manufacture and export. However, there are minor exceptions.

Take cocaine.

In most cases, it is exported from Colombia or a close neighbor via ships or planes to Mexico in an unfinished form, according to DEA interviews and reports. In many cases, the drugs are delivered to the west coast of Mexico, where the cartels unload, package and prepare them for shipment to the United States.

The drug organizations put him in tractor-trailers bound for a port of entry. If the tractor-trailers carrying the drugs cross the southwestern California or Arizona border, they will often take the freeways to Interstate 80 to Chicago, where the contents are repackaged and prepped for Midwestern cities. .

From there, trucks take major arteries into Ohio, including the state’s Turnpike, which is a main route for traffickers, according to a Justice Department report.

Drugs passing through ports of entry in Texas follow similar routes, although couriers have been known to carry loads directly to northeast Ohio, according to interviews and reports.

Fentanyl and methamphetamine follow similar routes, except that the cartels often obtain the precursor chemicals to produce the drugs from other countries. Once packaged in Mexico, the drugs are shipped to ports of entry.

Most drug containers are hidden in hidden compartments of vehicles or buried among furniture and legal containers in tractor-trailers. The contents are often tightly wrapped in various forms of packaging to prevent the smell from attracting the attention of law enforcement, in case the trucks are pulled over.

The cartels used fake fuel tanks to hide crystal meth and fake funds in various containers to hide other drugs. Many loads are carried by drivers who have ties to the cartels and know the contents, according to interviews and court records.

This surge has caused many to question the priorities of the Mexican government and its inability to stem the flow of drugs.

“The volume of dangerous drugs entering the United States from Mexico and violent crime in Mexico fueled by [cartels] remain at an alarming and unacceptable level,” said a US State Department report released last year.

The report says Mexico needs to strengthen its investigations and prosecutions of “the most important criminal actors” and tackle widespread corruption.

But authorities suggest it could take years, if not decades. For many, the fight against the cartels is lost.

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