LOS ANGELES — The threat was so bold it was almost comic: A Mexican drug cartel said it would take out United States drug czar Barry McCaffrey with a missile.
But no one involved with US security was laughing. And the fact that such a seemingly outrageous threat was taken seriously shows the growing influence - and strength - of organized crime on the border.
For generations, drug trafficking from Mexico was relatively low profile. It was the province of family operations that grew marijuana and heroin themselves, then gave it to local trafficking operations to take across the border in the nooks and crannies of beat up Fords and Chevys. Though serious, the trade didn't threaten the nation's security.
Not any more.
The threat of organized crime, both on the border and beyond, is serious and growing, say federal officials and experts. So much so that the growth of cartels, and the increased violence that they have brought to the border, makes cross-border drug traffic "the most serious security threat" the United States faces, says Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California (D).
The power and influence of the Mexican cartels increased exponentially during the 1980s, when the infamous Cali drug cartel rerouted much of its drug traffic through Mexico to avoid an increased US presence in the Caribbean. And since the fall of the Cali cartel in the mid-'90s, the Mexican cartels have gone from merely transporting drugs to organizing their own distribution networks.
"Mexican trafficking organizations now control operations along the Mexico border, the West Coast of the US, and well into the Midwest," according to a Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) report. And "for the first time ... Mexican transportation groups [are] delivering quantities of cocaine to ... New York City."
In fact, experts add, more and more of the production is migrating north of the border as well. According to recent reports, as much as 80 to 90 percent of the marijuana confiscated from outdoor growing operations in California is tied to Mexican nationals. And most of them, officials say, are connected to Mexican cartels. Senator Feinstein also says Mexican nationals operate 85 percent of the illicit methamphetamine labs in California.
These groups, officials say, are undeniably changing the way Americans live their lives. They "influence the choices that too many Americans make about where to live, when to venture out of their homes, or where to send their children to school," a DEA official told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this year.
Indeed, the broadening reach of Mexican organized crime has brought it into increasing contact with US law enforcement, and that has often had violent consequences.
In April, two US Customs Service inspectors at Calexico, Calif., were wounded by a gun-toting marijuana smuggler who was killed in the exchange of fire. And drug-smuggling truckers try to crash through border checkpoints - and over customs inspectors.
During May and June, the Border Patrol reported seven incidents along the 66-mile San Diego sector of the border where agents were fired on from Mexico. And one cartel, from Tijuana, has gone so far as to employ San Diego gang members for executions in the US.
But the cartels inflict damage with money as well as bullets. Although few Border Patrol or customs agents have succumbed to bribery, the cartels' dole has extended to the very top of Mexico's drug-interdiction effort - making the US officials wary of sharing sensitive information with their southern counterparts.
Cartels' new recruits
Cartels are stepping up efforts in the US, too. There are reports that they "recruit some US military veterans as technical experts on weaponry and the high-tech equipment they need to get their stuff across the border," says Peter Smith, director of Latin American studies at the University of California in San Diego.
The US has responded by upgrading its technology as well, but some say that still isn't enough.
"The major role of the federal government is interdiction, and we've done a lousy job at it," says Feinstein. "We've got this stuff coming in by air, by land, and by sea, and until ... we are willing ... to put new forces at the border, and ready to develop the kind of intelligence network that's necessary, this is going to continue."