The kingpins of this hemisphere's drug trade are no longer Colombians.
In the largest reorganization since the 1980s, senior US officials say, Mexican cartels have leveraged the profits from their delivery routes to wrest control from the Colombian producers. The shift is also because of the success authorities have had in cracking down on Colombia's kingpins.
As a result, Mexican drug lords are calling the shots in what the UN estimates is a $142 billion a year business in cocaine, heroin, marijuana, methamphetamine, and illicit drugs on US streets.
"Today, the Mexicans have taken over and are running the organized crime, and getting the bulk of the money," says John Walters, the White House drug czar, in a phone interview. "The Colombians have pulled back."
One consequence of the new dominance of Mexican cartels is a spike in violence, especially along the 2,000-mile US-Mexico border where rival cartels are warring not only against Mexican and US authorities, but also against one another for control of the lucrative transit corridors.
While the Colombian cartels still control most of the production of cocaine and heroin, explains Jorge Chabat, a drug expert at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching (CIDE), a university in Mexico City, the more profitable part of the trade - transport to the US, and distribution there - has come under control of various Mexican cartels. Those organizations include: Osiel Cárdenas' Gulf cartel, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán's Sinaloa cartel, Arellano Felix's organization in Tijuana, and the Juárez cartel, said to be led by Vicente Carrillo.
"With the successful dismantling of some of the biggest cartels in Colombia, it was only natural that the Mexicans, who had for years had close contacts with the Colombians and knew the routes and the business, would take over," says Mr. Chabat. "...and now, they are fighting among themselves."
The drugs, says Ron Brooks, president of the US National Narcotics Officers Association in West Covina, Calif., are either flown from Colombia to Mexico in small planes, or, in the case of marijuana and methamphetamine, are produced locally. Then, the drugs are shipped into the US by boat, private vehicles, or in commercial trucks crossing the border. US Border Patrol statistics show that last year 48 million pedestrians, 90 million private vehicles and 4.4 million trucks crossed from Mexico into the United States.
According to the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, as much as 90 percent of the cocaine sold in the US in 2004 was smuggled through Mexican territory. Mexico is also the No. 2 supplier of heroin, the largest foreign source of marijuana, and the largest producer of methamphetamine. Moreover, Mexican criminal groups now dominate operations in the US, says the bureau's latest report, released in March, and control most of the 13 primary drug distribution centers in the US.
Nuevo Laredo, a town of 350,000 in the state of Tamaulipas, which sits across the Rio Grande from Laredo, Texas, has been hit hardest by the drug turf-war violence. Of some 820 registered drug-related killings in Mexico so far this year, 228 took place in the state of Tamaulipas, almost half of those in Nuevo Laredo, including two police chiefs and 21 police officers. Six journalists covering drug trafficking along the border have also been killed in the past 18 months.
Police say this is a battle between Mr. Guzmán, who escaped from a maximum-security prison in 2001 in a laundry cart, and Mr. Cárdenas, who is still locked in a prison near Mexico City.
"We've had something like 109 murders, all but a few of those connected with the narco war that's taking place here," Michael Yoder, US consul in Nuevo Laredo, told the press last week, noting that only six suspects had been arrested. "There really is a feeling that you can get away with murder in Nuevo Laredo."
The US ambassador to Mexico, Tony Garza, closed the US Consulate in Nuevo Laredo for a week earlier this month after a downtown shootout between Mexican traffickers involving high-powered rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and bazookas.
"I have heard the voices of those who claim that violence along the US-Mexico border is an unfortunate fact of life that we must learn to live with," Garza, who himself grew up in a Texas border town, said in a statement. As the son of the US-Mexico border, I will not accept that notion."
But the violence is not limited to Nuevo Laredo.
Rolando Alvarado Navarette, head of the federal police in Ciudad Juárez, a hardened city of 1.5 million across the border from El Paso, Texas, says his priority these days is to prevent the Nuevo Laredo-type violence from spreading to his turf. "So far, there is no such similar battle for power under way here," he says, alluding to the belief that the Juárez cartel is securely in control of the trafficking in this corridor.
The Mexican federal police investigative teams (AFI) under Mr. Navarette's command, working together with state and municipal police, go out daily on drug raids here. But their adversaries are still doing a booming business. In 2000, police here carried out 40 major drug busts. This year, so far, there have been 200.
"I am not waiting until we become another Nuevo Laredo," says Linda Lincoln, a 21-year-old mother of two, doing her weekly shopping in a Ciudad Juárez supermarket. She wants to move a few miles away to El Paso, Texas. "The violence is getting too ugly now," she says, relating how there are drug sales and shooting in her neighborhood nightly. "I want my kids to grow up in a safe place."
Arthur Werge, FBI special agent in El Paso, Texas, points to the low crime rate in El Paso as evidence the violence is stopping at the border. "People cross over and abide by the law," he says. "We won't tolerate anything else.... You won't find people driving around with AK47s, executing police officers or throwing bodies wrapped up in blankets on the side of the road.... And you wont find people running red lights either. Things are different here."
But others, including Mr. Walters, the director the US Office of National Drug Control Policy, say its only a matter of time before the border violence reaches into the US. "The killing of rival traffickers is already spilling across the border," he says. "Witnesses are being killed. We do not think the border is a shield."
Since President Vicente Fox came to power in 2000, 36,000 drug traffickers have been arrested, among them top figures from almost all the cartels, according to the National Center for Analysis Planning and Intelligence against Organized Crime in Mexico City (CENAPI).
Furthermore, more than 2,000 police officers were investigated for corruption in connection with drug trafficking, and 711 officers were ultimately charged with offenses ranging from receiving bribes from cartels to kidnapping and murder. The former state police chief in Ciudad Juárez is under investigation for murder.
But, observers say, these crackdown may have added to the violence.
Walters admits there have been some unwanted consequences to the arrests. "President Fox has taken an aggressive role which leads to ... power vacuums and destabilization, with one cartel attacking the other," he says. "In a way the violence is terrible but also a sign that the cartels are being squeezed by government."
Chabat says Fox has gone far in fighting the cartels, but not far enough. Fox, says Chabat, is like a "poor guy trying to impress a rich girl" - the US. "He gets a nice car for the evening, but does not have money for flowers." Fox, says Chabat, has arrested some of the top drug lords - but is unable or unwilling to reform the justice or police system enough to finish the job.
US officials claim that the Mexican government's reluctance to extradite top drug criminals - the way Colombia has - is hampering efforts. Colombia has extradited 173 drug suspects since 2002, including many major figures, to the US. Mexico extradited a record 34 in 2004, but no major drug lords.
"I understand the difficulty in extraditing nationals, but left in Mexican jails these people continue to run the show," says Walters.
"And the show," adds Juárez police chief Navarette, "is not a pretty one."
Once controlled by West Coast biker gangs, or rural "cooks" working out of trailers in the US Midwest, the trade in methamphetaminein recent years has been moving south of the border, say officials.
About 65 percent of the drug, known as Crystal, Ice, Glass, Tweak, Zip or just Meth is now either being made in bulk quantities in "super labs" run by Mexican nationals in California, or, increasingly, coming from labs in Mexico, says Doug Coleman, a special agent at the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).
Such super labs produce 10 pounds or more of the drug in a 24-hour period, according to DEA statistics. One ounce is considered enough to get 120 people high. The Mexican labs, says Mr. Coleman, mainly produce a crystalline version of the drug. It's not more potent than other forms, but is increasingly popular in the US. "American consumers think 'ice' is like crack cocaine and better, and will pay more for it," he says.
"What we have seen in past 3 years is significant," he says in a phone interview from Washington, DC. "There has been a doubling of seizures of methamphetamine coming in from Mexico...and, we know of a significant shipments of pseudoephedrine [a key ingredient in meth] from factories in Europe, India, and Asia into that country."
Ron Brooks, president of the National Narcotics Officers Association, which represents 60,000 police nationwide, says the Mexicans are filling gaps left by the squeezing of the domestic market, in particular the crackdown on pseudoephedrine.
Under political pressure, US pharmaceutical companies have begun reformulating their cold remedies to avoid using pseudoephedrine and 30 states have restricted pseudoephedrine sales in retail stores. Target, Wal-Mart, Rite-Aid and other retailers have moved nonprescription cold pills behind the pharmacy counter, where meth cooks have a harder time getting at them.
"We have successfully moved to cut off the chemicals used to make meth in the US," says White House drug czar John Walters, "But that success in attacking the problem in one place has pushed it across the border."
"The Mexican cartels were already smuggling in marijuana and heroin and cocaine," says Mr. Brooks. "And they quickly realized the crackdown on meth in the US was an opportunity for them to use their already existing distributions lines and expand the business." By making meth themselves, says Brooks, the cartels didn't have to share the profits, as they do with Colombian suppliers.
• Ms. Harman is Latin America bureau chief for the Monitor and USA Today. Eloise Quintanilla contributed to this report.