U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey announced Sept. 17 that an international drug interdiction operation involving law enforcement in the United States, Italy, Canada, Mexico and Guatemala had netted more than 500 organized crime members involved in the cocaine trade. The announcement highlighted the Italian-Mexican cocaine connection. Traditionally, Colombia has been the world’s cocaine provider, but while the Andes are still the production heartland for cocaine, Mexico is emerging as a rising player on the business and distribution side. With greater transnational activity comes a higher profile, which will lead law enforcement all over the world to pay more attention to Mexico.
U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey announced Sept. 17 that Project Reckoning, an international drug interdiction operation, led to the arrest of more than 500 individuals and the seizure of 16 tons of cocaine and $60 million in cash. The operation took 15 months and involved law enforcement agencies in Italy, the United States, Canada, Mexico and Guatemala. Of those arrested in the operation, 175 were arrested in the United States; most were of Mexican origin and were suspected of working for Mexico’s Gulf drug cartel. Sixteen suspected high-level drug traffickers working for Italy’s ‘Ndrangheta organized criminal clan were also arrested in the United States and Italy.
Cooperation between the two drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs) involved the Gulf cartel using its distribution network to get cocaine from Mexico to the United States into Atlanta, Ga., and New York. From there, the cocaine was handed over to ‘Ndrangheta members and trafficked across the Atlantic Ocean to Italy. Once in Italy, the cocaine was sold via domestic and regional distribution networks on the European market. Project Reckoning was an effort to dismantle this network that spanned three countries.
Mukasey’s announcement shows quite clearly that Mexican DTOs are working with international partners to find new markets for their products. Although no Mexican nationals were reported arrested in Italy, the connection between the Gulf cartel and ‘Ndrangheta appears to be strong — and mostly based on U.S. soil. It seems the Gulf cartel’s inroads into the U.S. market have put it in contact with Italian criminals based in New York and Atlanta and gave rise to a business partnership.
Traditionally, the Colombians have controlled cocaine trafficking. During the 1980s and early 1990s, Colombia’s Pablo Escobar was the king of cocaine and dealt with organized criminal networks all over the world — including La Cosa Nostra, ‘Ndrangheta’s criminal cousin. But as interdiction efforts began focusing on Colombia and its DTOs such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the Colombians’ ability to traffic cocaine declined dramatically. Mexican DTOs have been more than happy to take their place.
For several years, there have been indications that Mexican DTOs like the Sinaloa federation and the Gulf cartel have taken over trafficking cocaine from Colombia to the worldwide markets. The United States gets virtually all of its cocaine from across its border with Mexico. Colombia and its Andean neighbors are still very much active in cocaine cultivation; they are responsible for more than 99 percent of the world’s supply, according to the United Nations. While Colombian, Venezuelan and other South American DTOs are still active in international cocaine trafficking, this latest interdiction provides further evidence that Mexican DTOs are pushing into the European cocaine market.
But with more international activity comes a higher profile. Mexican DTOs have proven quite adept at trafficking cocaine through Latin America and over the border into the United States, but that is also more or less their home turf. Mexico has always experienced some level of smuggling through its country and so has plenty of practice smuggling everything from people to dope through its own backyard. But trafficking on the global stage means entering new partnerships, establishing new financial transactions and, inevitably, making more enemies.
The ‘Ndrangheta is a well-known entity in Italy, Europe and South America. The organization is responsible for trafficking 80 percent of the cocaine on the European market. The ‘Ndrangheta has also raised interest in corners of Europe because of its suspected involvement in the murder of six men in Duisburg, Germany, in August 2007. Since U.S. and Italian officials are putting Italian crime families under close scrutiny — a U.S.-Italian operation in February led to 80 arrests — the Gulf cartel risks being linked to a heavily investigated and well-known organized criminal group by doing business with the ‘Ndrangheta.
The Gulf cartel is not alone in taking advantage of the transatlantic cocaine trade. Members of the Sinaloa federation were arrested in Peru on Sept. 5, suspected of attempting to traffic 2.5 tons of cocaine to the Netherlands. While it is not clear that the Dutch authorities were involved in the arrests and seizures, it highlights both the expansion of Mexican cartels into the worldwide market and the risk that they assume in doing so.
What this means for Mexican DTOs (and specifically the Gulf cartel) is that, along with Mexican and U.S. officials, Italian and other European law enforcement officials will begin monitoring their activities. The cartels’ activities, such as financial transactions and communications, are much easier to investigate when law enforcement agencies can look at them from several different angles. When the Italians see something suspicious from the ‘Ndrangheta, they can alert the U.S. authorities, who in turn can alert the Mexican authorities, thus creating an international investigation of the Gulf cartel. That is just what happened in Project Reckoning, and the Gulf cartel — one of Mexico’s bigger DTOs — suffered a major hit because of it.