Saturday, April 30, 2016

Marijuana, Mexican Cartels, and Pike County Ohio: Speculation and Facts


It has been estimated that Mexican drug cartels take in between $19 and $29 billion annually from U.S. drug sales. The Sinaloa cartel is considered to be the dominant drug trafficking organization in Mexico. Other cartels include the Beltran Leyva, the Gulf, the Los Zetas.

The DEA says that the Mexican cartels now have command and control over the drug trade and are starting to show the hallmarks of organized crime, such as organizing into distinct cells with subordinate cells that operate throughout the United States. Some dispute exists as to whether the cartels are mainly suppliers or the ones trafficking drugs on the ground.

Border states from Texas to California have long grappled with a cartel presence. But cases involving cartel members have now emerged in the suburbs of Chicago and Atlanta, as well as in Columbus, Ohio, Louisville, Ky., and rural North Carolina. Suspects have also surfaced in Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania.

Mexican cartels produce methamphetamine and marijuana in the United States. Mexican cartels have long grown marijuana in the United States, often on federal land in California, but they are now expanding production to the Pacific northwest and, to a lesser extent, the eastern United States.

These marijuana producers are increasingly linked to each other and "many of these groups maintain their affiliation with the larger groups in California and Mexico and maintain some level of coordination and cooperation among their various operating areas, moving labor and materials to the various sites – even across the country – as needed."

(U.S. Department of Justice, National Drug Intelligence Center, National Drug Threat
Assessment 2007. October 2006.) 


In 2008, around 230 American communities reported some level of cartel presence. That number climbed to more than 1,200 in 2011, the most recent year for which information is available, though the increase is partly due to better reporting.

For years, cartels were more inclined to make deals in Mexico with American traffickers, who would then handle transportation to and distribution within major cities, said Art Bilek, a former organized crime investigator who is now executive vice president of the crime commission.

As their organizations grew more sophisticated, the cartels began scheming to keep more profits for themselves. So leaders sought to cut out middlemen and assume more direct control, pushing aside American traffickers, Bilek said.

(“Mexican drug cartels reportedly dispatching agents deep inside US.” Associated Press. April 01, 2013.)

Jack Riley, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Chicago office, argues that the cartels should be seen as an underlying cause of Chicago's disturbingly high murder rate. In 2012, slayings topped 500 for the first time since 2008. And, although the cartels aren't dictating the territorial wars, they are the source of drugs.

"They are the puppeteers," he said. "Maybe the shooter didn't know and maybe the victim didn't know that. But if you follow it down the line, the cartels are ultimately responsible."

As a result of their dominance of the U.S. illicit drug market, Mexican cartels are the leading wholesale launderers of drug money from the United States. Mexican and Colombian trafficking organizations annually smuggle an estimated $8.3 to $24.9 billion in drug proceeds into Mexico for laundering.

(Congressional Research interview with DEA officials. November 8, 2006.)

Mexican drug traffickers increasingly smuggle money back into Mexico in cars and trucks, likely due to the effectiveness of U.S. efforts at monitoring electronic money transfers.

In addition to drug trafficking, Mexican cartels have been tied to both human and arms trafficking, auto theft, and kidnaping.

(Colleen W. Cook. “Mexico's Drug Cartels.” CRS Report For Congress. October 16, 2007.)

In a 2010 report, it was noted that the American street gang, Surenos, maintains ties with the Los Zetas cartel in California and South Carolina. A more recent report from the FBI show these U.S. streets gangs growing closer with Mexican cartels.

(FBI “Gang Threat Assessment – Emerging Trends.” 2011.)

The expansion of Los Zetas operations across the southwestern border has long been a concern of U.S. authorities. Trained as an elite band of Mexican anti-drug commandos, Los Zetas evolved into mercenaries for the infamous Gulf Cartel, unleashing a wave of brutality in Mexico’s drug wars.

The Zetas aren't just involved with drugs and narcotics. In addition to drugs, the cartel extorts businesses, kidnaps people for ransom and steals oil from Mexico's state-owned oil company Pemex.

In 2012 after arresting four alleged operatives of the Zetas cartel, Richard Pearson, a lieutenant with the Louisville Metropolitan Police Department, said, "This is the first time we've been seeing it - cartels who have their operatives actually sent here."

Authorities seized more than 2,400 pounds of marijuana and more than $1 million in cash in a Louisville neighborhood that was shocked to discover some of their low-key neighbors were accused of working for one of Mexico's most violent drug syndicates.

At the end of February 2013 outside Columbus, Ohio, authorities arrested 34-year-old Isaac Eli Perez Neri, who allegedly told investigators he was a debt collector for the Sinaloa cartel.

Because cartels accumulate houses full of cash, they run the constant risk associates will skim off the top. That points to the main reason cartels prefer their own people: Trust is hard to come by in their cutthroat world. There's also a fear factor. Cartels can exert more control on their operatives than on middlemen, often by threatening to torture or kill loved ones back home.

Danny Porter, chief prosecutor in Gwinnett County, Ga., said he has tried to entice dozens of suspected cartel members to cooperate with American authorities. Nearly all declined. Some laughed in his face.

"They say, `We are more scared of them (the cartels) than we are of you. We talk and they'll boil our family in acid,'" Porter said. "Their families are essentially hostages."

(Staff Report. “Mexican cartels dispatch agents deep inside US – spread into non-border states. New York Post. April 01, 2013.)


In a very disturbing development, Mexican drug syndicates reportedly have been offering cash to American military members to act as contract killers in murder-for-hire plots in the United States. Experts worry this line of work will only become more enticing for vets who struggle to find civilian jobs after serving in combat zones and wary military recruits look for gang connections to potentially use their skills unlawfully.

Fred Burton, former deputy chief of the counterterrorism division of the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service, said there is extensive chatter among intelligence officials about military servicemen being recruited by Mexican cartels, often through gang connections, but there are no hard numbers.

"I've seen lots of security reports saying this is a trending issue," Burton told the Daily News. "But it's based on intelligence that we don't see and only hear about … This issue is really hard to pin down. The military struggles with this on many levels."

(Deborah Hastings. “U.S. soldiers accepting cash, drugs for Mexican drug cartel contract hits.” New York Daily News. September 13, 2013.)

The Sinaloa Cartel

The United States Intelligence Community considers the Sinaloa cartel the most powerful drug trafficking organization in the world” and in 2011, the Los Angeles Times called it "Mexico's most powerful organized crime group." The Sinaloa Cartel is associated with the label “Golden Triangle,” which refers to the states of Sinaloa, Durango, and Chihuahua. The region is a major producer of Mexican opium and marijuana.

The Sinaloa cartel was headed by the now incarcerated Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, and it operates in every region of the U.S., according to statistics compiled by the National Drug Intelligence Center.

Mexico is one of the world's biggest marijuana supplier countries, with North America as a whole accounting for 69 percent of global marijuana seizures in 2011 -- the majority in the United States and Mexico, according to the United Nations' 2013 World Drug Report.

The extent of the Sinaloa cartel's control over Mexican marijuana routes and production is not surprising, given various operations that have pointed to Sinaloa involvement in the past two years.

In November 2011, U.S. authorities took down a smuggling operation believed to have trafficked $2 billion in drugs from Mexico to Arizona, including 1,300 tons of marijuana, with the Sinaloa cartel thought to be the source of the drugs. The largest marijuana farm ever found in Mexico as of 2011 -- 120 hectares -- was located in Baja California, a Sinaloa cartel operational center.

(Marguerite Cawley. “Sinaloa cartel controls over 40 marijuana trafficking route. August 12, 2013.)


Is There a Cartel Connection With the Rhoden Slayings?

The execution-style slayings of eight members of the Rhoden family in April 2016 have people wondering whether a cartel was responsible for the heinous crime. Of course, the remoteness of the wooded countryside in Pike County, Ohio, makes it a perfect place for Mexican cartels trying to grow marijuana stateside. Authorities allegedly found commercial marijuana operations at three of the four murder scenes.

According to USA Today, Pike County Prosecutor Rob Junk said two prior marijuana operations in Pike County, Ohio, are the only cases being related to some kind of organized crime. The value of those operations was an estimated $23 million.

In 2010, an estimated 22,000-plant crop was found about 4 miles into the woods near Grassy Fork and Green Ridge roads. It was one of the biggest pot busts since Ohio's marijuana-eradication unit started 20 years ago. Five or six campsites were discovered on the premises. Officials said items left behind at camp sites used to guard the crops linked the operations to cartels.

Two years later, an additional 1,200 plants were found on the other side of the county. No one was arrested either time said Junk.

"Everybody who was working those things took off before law enforcement could catch them," said Junk.

“I don’t think they actually know who the other group (from 2010) was except that they were using Hispanic workers to grow it,” Junk said, adding it takes “some serious organized crime” to conduct such an operation.

It may be pertinent to understand that the Ohio-grown marijuana had levels of THC, the plant's active ingredient, as high as 18.9 percent (tested previously in 2009), compared with the 3 percent or 4 percent found in marijuana shipped from across the border.

(“1,200 Marijuana Plants Found in Pike County Might be Linked to Drug Cartel. August 17, 2012.)

Cartels have been tied to similar operations elsewhere in the state, including another in 2010 where hunters tipped off officials to a camp and grow site at the Coshocton/Muskingum county line. Officials found 6,000 plants and 11 men were taken into custody. In addition, in August 2011, eradication efforts in Vinton County led to the discovery of about 17,000 plants -- 400 pounds -- of marijuana growing along Ohio 328 near New Plymouth.

But, investigators also have a new criminal drug venture showing up. In late January 2016, a package at the Piketon post office arrived smelling of marijuana, leading law enforcement eventually to a "shatter" lab, where a large amount of oil was being extracted from marijuana, Junk said. Like meth labs, shatter labs are volatile and prone to exploding.

The extracted oil can be added to food products or a cigarette, with just a few drops being as potent as a full joint, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency.

And yet …

Chris Melink, the resident agent-in-charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Dayton office said that it would be unusual for the Mexican cartel to be connected to the Rhoden grows.

“Historically, those types of domestic grows are separate from the Mexican cartel supply chain," said Melink in an interview with the Springfield News-Sun.

A majority of the marijuana under control of cartels crosses the border from Mexico in southwestern states such as California and Nevada in multi-ton shipments, he said.

Melink would not speculate on whether the deaths in Pike County were retribution over drug-selling turf, but he said those kinds of killings do occur domestically.

“There are on occasions when acts of violence are carried out, particularly as it relates to markets,” he said.

(Chris Stewart and Josh Sweigart. “DEA agent: Cartel presence in rural Ohio would be unusual.” Springfield News-Sun. April 28, 2016.)

The investigation into the Rhoden murders continues. Public speculation is high about cartel involvement; however, very little evidence has been released. Until the work by authorities is completed, a worried public wonders how such a tragedy could occur. This unspeakable violence has shocked rural Ohio.

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